Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

A STORY OF FIVE LEMONS

In the past few days I’ve been contacted by quite a number of students from Texas, who told me that my poem ‘Five Lemons’ was set as an essay subject for their IB exam (I’m guessing that’s International Baccalaureate?). They mostly seem to have liked the poem but they also ask for interpretations of it. Since it isn’t possible for me to discuss the poem with everyone individually, I’m writing this to tell the story of the poem and offer a few comments. I hope they’re helpful!

Free stock photo of food, healthy, nature, water

But first, here’s the poem for those who don’t know it:

FIVE LEMONS

Here are five lemons from the poet’s garden,

the colour of white gold and icy sunshine,

flooded with green around the pointed nipples.

My younger daughter cuts one into quarters,

careful of fingers, bites the white-furred pith out,

devours the quartz-white segments with her eyes shut,

sighing and swaying in the sharp enjoyment.

 

Here are four lemons from the poet’s garden:

one perched on three, a perfect tetrahedron.

The poet’s widow showed me where to pick them,

kindly and shrewd, helping me find the best ones,

holding the branch down while I snapped the stalks off,

the cold breeze in our faces from the mountain.

We’ll halve this one and squeeze it over couscous.

 

Here are three lemons from the poet’s garden

still in the bowl, turned in a neat triangle,

yellower now. My elder daughter chooses,

after long thought, one for her still-life painting,

the twisted leaves like green airplane-propellers

with a Cezanne pear and a Braque violin,

fractured into art-deco Cubist slices.

 

Here are two lemons from the poet’s garden

below his tall house on the terraced hillside,

red earth black-pitted with his fallen olives

between the gnarled trunks trailing silver foliage,

beside the boulders of the dusty torrent

rainless above that sea of sparkling turquoise.

The juice is perfect for a tuna salad.

 

Here is a lemon from the poet’s garden,

the last of them. Long is the poet gone,

silent his grave on the hilltop under the cypress,

long the shadows drawn by moon and sun

out from the low walls and high gate of the graveyard.

I press the waxy peel to my face and breathe it.

There are no words for what the fragrance tells me.

 

So here’s the story. In 1997 I was asked to edit The White Goddess, Robert Graves’s wonderful book about myth and poetic inspiration, for a new collected edition of Graves’s writings. Graves (1895-1985) had died twelve years earlier, and though he was an English poet and novelist (best known probably for I Claudius), he had lived in the village of Deya in Majorca. His son William invited me over there, to see Graves’s own copy of the book, which had many corrections and alterations that needed to be put into the new edition.

I was hugely excited because it was reading Graves’s work that had first turned me on to poetry, something which changed my life and has dominated it happily ever since.

La Casa de Robert Graves

So I went to Deya. Robert Graves’s house, where his widow Beryl still lived, was on the hillside just outside the village. It had a sloping garden with fruit trees and olive trees. Beryl welcomed me into the house, where nothing had changed since Robert Graves’s death. His hats were still on the hatpegs, his coats were in the closet in the entrance hall. Beryl said ‘You’d better work in here!’ and took me into Graves’s study.

Everything was just as he’d left it: his pens and pencils, coins and little pebbles and other trinkets were on the desk, his books were on the shelves, there was an unfinished letter which he’d never signed lying on one of the surfaces. The atmosphere was electric: completely magical. So I sat in Robert Graves’s chair, at his desk, surrounded by his books and possessions, and Beryl brought me his copy of The White Goddess with all his markings in it, and I began work.

Each day Beryl would give me lunch. Although she was living out in the Majorcan mountains, her household was completely English. She had two cats and a little dog, she had the Times Literary Supplement delivered every week, she had an ‘Aga’ stove, and for lunch she made things like scrambled eggs on toast, and bananas and custard. She was delightful.

At the end of the week I had finished my work on the book, but before I left Beryl took me down into the orchard below the house and helped me to pick the lemons, just as I’ve described in the poem. (The ‘dusty torrent’ is one of the ‘torrents’ or watercourses which run down the parched Majorcan hillsides between the olive groves; they fill up with water at certain times of year, or in summer at certain hours when the limited water supply is opened up to flow in that direction – the neighbours take turns to have the water, because it’s so scarce – so the ‘torrent’ is really more of a ‘channel’.)

I took the lemons home, and the poem describes what happened to them.

Now, about interpretation. Some people have asked me what the poem means, or to give them an interpretation, or to explain it to them. I don’t think that is really possible, because a poem doesn’t have just one meaning. It means different things to different people. Obviously we can all agree that a lemon is a lemon, and that turquoise is a colour we recognise; but once the poem is written it becomes an object, a thing that people can look at from different angles and turn over in their minds and reflect on. And everyone will come up with a different interpretation. There’s no single ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ interpretation, and I love it when people see things in my poems that I didn’t know were there!

That’s as it should be. A poem isn’t a riddle that has a single correct answer. It’s more like a painting: everyone can look at it, and each person can find something different there. And as long as what you find fits with the words, then it’s right. The more meanings the better!

I can add few details. Obviously the poet’s garden – for me – is Robert Graves’s garden. (But maybe it could be any poet’s garden!) The grave is his (sorry about the repetition of the word ‘grave’, it can’t be helped!) – a very simple village grave in the small churchyard at Deya on the hilltop, which does have a low stone wall and then a tall gate which sticks up. But again it could be any poet who has died.

In the poem I think I’m a bit sad at the end as I smell the fragrance of the last lemon. It’s my final contact with the place and the experience, and with Beryl, and it’s like a gift from the poet himself; but there are some things you can’t put into words, so the poem ends maybe with a touch of sadness, a memory that’s valuable but also admitting that even in a poem you can’t say everything.

So my warmest thanks to all the people who wrote to me, for your generous appreciation of the poem. I hope you really enjoyed it even though it came to you as part of a test – maybe not the best way to meet a poem! I hope it left some happy pictures in your minds, and also a pleasant scent of lemons!

If you ever want to visit the the house – La Casa de Robert Graves – the website is here:

http://www.lacasaderobertgraves.org/en/

In the garden at Deya – with some more lemons!

 

COLERIDGE: SPIRITUAL MARINER

The poet, critic and Anglican priest Malcolm Guite is writing a new life of Coleridge. It’s going to be called Mariner, and it will focus on Coleridge’s inner life – his spiritual quest. Malcolm’s idea is that Coleridge prefigured the pattern of his future life in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and the book will take its shape from the poem. A brilliant idea, I think.

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Malcolm Guite on the shore of Ullswater: October 2014

 

There have been excellent lives of Coleridge before – Richard Holmes’s wonderful and readable two-volume biography, and Molly Lefebure’s books on Coleridge’s opium addiction and his family – but none of them has really been deeply interested in Coleridge’s religious life and ideas. Yet this aspect of life was, for Coleridge himself, the most important of all, and it conditioned everything else.

In October I spent a few days exploring the Lakes with Malcolm, visiting some of Coleridge’s haunts; and this post is going to be an unashamed flashback because I’m recalling that time, and want to put some of the pictures from it on my blog. So here we go.

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Aira Force waterfalls – maybe the most spoectacular torrent in the Lakes

 

Malcolm and I met at Penrith rail station and went south along the shores of Ullswater to Aira Force with its amazing multilevelled waterfalls. We explored the network of footpaths that wind up into the woodland around the falls. We also relaxed on the shores of Ullswater, where Malcolm – though not I – ventured into the water for a paddle.

We went on to Keswick, where we stayed at the Queen’s Hotel – only realising after we checked in that this was where the John Hatfield, the conman who posed as an aristocrat and seduced the famous Maid of Buttermere, had also stayed, in 1802.

We visited Greta Hall, where Coleridge lived from 1800 to 1803 – not usually open to the public, though you can rent self-catering accommodation there,  – see www.gretahall.net – and it has the most amazingly interesting and beautiful house with wonderful views over the Vale of Derwentwater. Profound thanks to Jeronime, who welcomed us there and told us all about the house’s history.

Greta%20Hall[1]

Greta Hall, Keswick

Malcolm, a keen waterman, insisted we go out in a boat on Derwentwater, and generously did all the rowing, so I was able to enjoy the views and the fresh air without effort.

We stayed the next night at How Foot Lodge, my favourite hotel in Grasmere, and visited the Wordsworth Trust, taking a tour of Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum, including the Jerwood Centre, where Jeff Cowton, the Curator, had with enormous generosity arranged to have a number of Coleridge manuscripts out for Malcolm to examine, as well as one of the several fine portrait drawings the Trust owns.

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Bravely, Malcolm prepares to paddle in Ullswater!

 

From there we went on to Rydal Mount, Wordsworth’s home in his later years, and wandered around the gardens as well as exploring the house: not quite as dramatically atmospheric as Dove Cottage, but a fine, comfortable Victorian family home, with Wordsworth’s study right up in an attic looking south towards Windermere.

Altogether a wonderful few days in what was, I think, the last spell of fine golden autumn weather during 2014. Very good to look back on from a bleak chilly January; and of course on the other hand I am now looking forward to Malcolm’s book about Coleridge which, from what I know of Malcolm’s work, will be beautifully readable and also very profound.

LUNA PARK: NEW POEMS FOR 2015

I hope you had a good Christmas. Warm wishes for a Happy New Year anyway! In my last post I said I would write about the other book I’ve recently completed, along with Charles Williams: The Third Inkling. This is a new collection of poems, to be called Luna Park, and it will appear from Carcanet Press in autumn 2015. It’s currently available for pre-order at a discount, here:

http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781857549874

It’s my first full-length book of poems since Playing With Fire in 2006.

This time the themes have a distinctly ‘lunar’ tinge to them – hence the title. Many of the poems are set at night, or they deal with dreams, visions, ghosts, or the magical.

Lindop

‘Show Me the Moon’ by Linda Cooper – cover design for ‘Luna Park’ (note the ‘no title yet’ space filler – only temporary!) Design by Stephen Raw.

Not that the title comes directly from moon matters. Luna Park was actually the name of a derelict funfair I was shown when I visited Sydney in 2001. It was beside Sydney Harbour and it fascinated me: all those slightly battered rides and attractions slightly dilapidated and shut off behind chain link fencing. It stuck in  my memory.

But it struck me that ‘Luna Park’ could also be a name for the territory of the moon and all things connected therewith. And I found the delightfully strange painting reproduced above by my friend the Cumbrian artist Linda Cooper and realised it would make the perfect cover image. Looking at it, you don’t necessarily see the cat at once, but then you follow the woman’s eyes and see that there’s a black cat and she is pulling back the curtain to let it see the moon. Fascinating.

I’ll put in a couple of poems from the book below. The first, ‘Cosmos’, was written when I was sitting up late at night in my room in a farmhouse in the Duddon Valley in the Lake District. It was first published in the magazine Resurgence, chosen by my friend Peter Abbs, the poetry editor.

 

COSMOS

Between Orion and Gemini, an almost-full moon.

Wrinkled tidewater tilting at the lips of Morecambe Bay.

 

Galaxies of cow parsley edging the valley fields.

Slow explosions of lichen on the fellside boulders.

 

The long-armed yew gesticulating at your window:

ancient growth-rings cupping a still more ancient hollow.

 

Old glass: molten tremulous lungful of human breath

spun flat, cut to rippled squares, set in the dusty casement.

 

Grain of the living oak, stopped dead in your tabletop.

Cobweb at the table’s corner a map of skewed co-ordinates.

 

Your tablelamp fed by Heysham’s uranium rods,

Haverigg’s twinkling windfarm, buried cables along the Duddon Valley.

 

Your mobile: lit menu, notional time, no signal.

The mountain: against the black of the sky, a blacker black.

 

The Troytown labyrinth of your fingerprint: Chartres maze stretched to an oval.

The fieldpaths crisscrossing in the palm of your hand.

 

Ink-slick spreading in the pen’s furrow:

gold keel ploughing an ocean of churned Norway spruce.

 

All of it drawn and drawn into the pupil’s black hole,

the dark that cannot be seen, the space that is everything else.

 

The second, ‘The Maldon Hawk’, was suggested by the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, in which an Anglo-Saxon nobleman sends his falcon  to fly free while he himself goes to battle with the Norsemen. If he survives he will call the hawk back; but we know he won’t survive. The poem gives the hawk’s view. It was first published in an anthology of poets with Oxford connections called Initiates, edited by Jane Draycott, a poet I greatly admire.

THE MALDON HAWK

he let him þa of handon   leofne fleogan

hafoc wið þæs holtes,    and to þære hilde stop

                     – ‘The Battle of Maldon’, 991 AD

 

And so, dismissed, I rose on a wingbeat

over horses already scattering to the wood,

unwanted as men turned to their war.

Vassal set loose from his master’s service,

blameless outlaw freed to the houseless wild,

circling, I watched thickets of metal and leather

crowd the shallows of the deepening tide.

Now as I scour the air my heart divides

between longing for a man’s call and the wideness of the world

where I got honour by my endgame, pleasing nobles

in the hour when the bright dove fled the man-flung hawk.

I pivot at flight’s apex but will not return,

though my jewelled eye sees each ring on his corselet

catch sun as he merges into the mass,

death-besotted warriors on their way to darkness.

Gladly I would stoop a last time into his language

but already battle’s whirlpool sucks him in, his face downward,

nameless and eyeless among the iron helmets.

I am a word forgotten from his story.

He is a landmark fading from my sight.

Men had seemed to have some special knowledge:

now the sea-wind tastes of death, they rush towards it –

whether to sing with saints or feast with battle-fellows

or lie at a tree’s root until the world ends

they know no better than I. Never again,

child of the waste moor and the tufted woodland,

will I perch on that wrist, grasp the bone beneath.

 

 

‘CIGAR’ – from Packet to Prize

On Tuesday I went to Tunbridge Wells, where my poem ‘Cigar’ had won second prize in the Kent and Sussex Poetry Society Open Competition. I’d entered at the last minute, without much expectation of anything happening, so was delighted and a bit startled when I got the news a couple of weeks ago.

The Kent and Sussex Poetry Society, a wonderful body that has existed since the 1920s (when it was founded by Vita Sackville-West, I’m told) gave me and the First Prize winner, Andrew Soye, and other prize winners a superb meal (sadly Jo Bell, who won third prize and with whom I read a few weeks ago in Manchester, couldn’t be there). Afterwards the judge, Pascale Petit, gave an exciting reading: superb and very powerful poems, some of them not yet published in book form.

Later I remembered how my poem was written – I was actually having a cigar, as I occasionally do, and the poem came when I had nothing to write on. So I dismembered the cigar packet and wrote on that. I’m sure other poets have grabbed bizarre bits of paper or card in similar circumstances rather than lose a poem! (Please write and tell me if you’ve done this, and maybe even send a scan!)

So I thought it would be fun to show the actual bits and pieces that got the first draft scribbled on them. Here they are below, with the final version of the poem following – quite a bit changed, as you’ll see if you bother to decipher the scribble! Sorry I can’t position the bits better, but I’m limited by the way the blog format works: it won’t let me put things just where I’d like them!

CIGAR

It would have, unrolled, a small book’s

surface area. My first was a gift

from the man at the next table

of the pavement café at the Hotel Inglaterra.

He worked, he said,Cigar.01 (2)

 

at the Partagás factory, where they read

the newspaper aloud all morning,

and in the afternoon novels and poetry

while, adept as conjurers’,

the workers’ hands rip, stuff and wrap. More words

went into it than I shall ever draw out.Cigar.02

 

The tobacco-god is a bird with scarlet plumage

and mother-of-pearl eyes. His four

attendants are the green

spirit of the fresh leaf, the brown of the dried,

the red spirit of fire and the blue of smoke.

 

The red visits only for flaring instants;

is fickle, demands nurture. The green

is memory and imagination. The blue

is a girl dressed in feathers: lapis, lavender, sky.

When she kissesCigar.04

 

her tongue is sharp as seabrine, chocolate, chilli.

She says the word tabaco is Carib,

from a language whose last speaker

has been dead four hundred years. But the brown

 

lives in my hand this moment, brittle

and crisp as a chrysalis. Filtered

through his crushed spirals,

molecular poems thread themselves

into my genes, become part of the air I breathe,

the words I speak. Both of us end in ash.Cigar.03

 

Sebastian Barker (1945-2014): ‘A Labour of Intense Devotion’

sebastian_barker_new[1]As many people will know, the poet Sebastian Barker died on 31 January. Sebastian was a splendid character, a real individual and a delightful person to spend time with. We’d known each other for many years, though only meeting at fairly long intervals.

His last book, The Land of Gold, is a masterpiece, in my opinion the best thing he ever wrote. I was lucky enough to be at its launch in nOvember, and Sebastian, though already very ill with lung cancer and using a wheelchair, was radiant: there was a sense that his work was done and he was facing the end of his life without fear, and full of love for the many friends who were gathered there with his children and his wife Hilary Davies to celebrate a great achievement in living as well as writing.

I hope to write more about Sebastian in future, but or the time being, here is the interview I recorded with him in 2005, which was published in PN Review and gives some flavour of his marvellously entertaining and inpsiring conversation.

SEBASTIAN BARKER IN CONVERSATION WITH GREVEL LINDOP

At the British Library, 5 July 2005
GREVEL LINDOP: You’ve three books coming out within a year: a collection of poems, Damnatio Memoriae, in October 2004; what seems to me an unclassifiable book, The Matter of Europe, just out; and another volume of poems, The Erotics of God, due this autumn. Did you conceive of them as a trilogy?
SEBASTIAN BARKER:  No. But I believe they are structured as a trilogy, with The Matter of Europe in the centre, Damnatio on the left and Erotics on the right. The fact is that all three books came out of the same series of studies which I’d been conducting for many years.
GL: What kind of studies?
SB: To do with the problem of references in writing poetry. From 1982 for about ten years I did a lot of research for a poem on Nietzsche, The Dream of Intelligence, which was published in 1992. There the references were easy, because it was essentially biographical in conception. When I’d finished that, I’d been through hell and I ended up in a serious and terrible crisis in which I was led by way of my wife and various friends to a Franciscan priest. He put me under instruction, and in the course of this instruction I staggered across a vast body of knowledge which I call ‘the Matter of Europe’. That’s why I published that particular book, because it documents and makes accessible to the reader this vast inheritance.
GL:What was the crisis?
SB: When I’d finished being a writer in residence in Berkshire I’d really covered everything that I wanted to do in terms of poetry. But I’d discovered the Greek poets and in 1982 I thought, right, I’ve got to go to Greece and I’ve got to build a house somehow or other. I took everything I’d got, put it all into a car and drove there. I realised that the person I was going to work on was Nietzsche because of his profound love of the art of tragedy, which is Greek, and the way this relates to the problem of suffering. I really built the house to write the poem. I wanted some philosophical premises! I spent £780 buying 500 square metres of land. Most of it was cactus and a pile of stones. But I had the freehold.
GL: Did you speak modern Greek at the time?
No, and they didn’t speak any English. It was in the Greek mountains. There were no tourists around, nobody, nothing. They saw this mad Englishman – I was either mad or I was a smuggler – but after three weeks some of them became curious. And then the whole village became involved. At one point we had 27 people working on the house. After nine months the whole house was a shell, but liveable. But then came the glorious part, of living in this fabulous place! It’s unbelievably beautiful.
SB: When I was coming to the end of The Dream of Intelligence, where Nietzsche goes mad, I kind of went mad myself. But because I’d built the house I knew where everything was, so when my mind started to go I could feel walls, I could feel where the loo was or the bed so I felt safe, and when I got the ending of the poem right, this extraordinary sense of repletion, of finish, came over me. The most glorious feeling in the world is the feeling of artistic repletion.
GL:And then you came back to England?
SB:  I had to because I’d run out of money!
GL: And you met the Franciscan.
SB: He sent me away and told me to go and buy a book, The Catholic Catechism. Twenty-five quid hardback. So I walked down the Embankment and I bought it. I was profoundly sceptical; but I read it, and I read it, and I was staggered! This is the most gorgeous beautiful book: and I realised that it was beautifully structured. It didn’t have an index, it had a list of people who’d been referred to, going back hundreds and hundreds of years, two thousand years and further. So I read all these books, and I realised that this was a vast cultural inheritance, the core of which had been forgotten. That’s why I called the first book Damnatio Memoriae – ‘Erased from Memory’.
GL: In that book, and even more in The Erotics of God, you’re using a very formally simple verse, aren’t you? It reminded me of Blake’s Songs of Innocence: it seems that you’re trying to make very direct statements.
SB: The way lyric poetry cuts into the mind I would not say it’s directly under the control of the writer. It’s rather like a bird that flies into a tree and then flies away again. If there’s a directness and a simplicity that is because the poems wanted to be written that way.
GL: But also your style, your language in these books is very unusual, because there’s a mixture of the learned and the coloquial – I mean at one moment you’ll be talking about ‘the anamnesis of the true irenics’ and at another point you’ll be calling a poem ‘Dickhead’. There’s a fantastic range.
SB: If I hear or feel lines coming, whether it’s ‘Dickhead’ or ‘the true irenics’, I don’t mind: I will go with it. My father [George Barker] used to say, The words tell you, you do not tell the words! And that is really important.
GL: Did you discuss the process of writing poetry with your father?
SB: Yes, we only had two subjects really: theology and the writing of poetry. My mother [Elizabeth Smart] wasn’t so interested in theology but she was more interested in what you might call love, which of course is theological in the extreme.
GL: I’m intrigued by the title and conception of The Erotics of God. One might expect much more explicit reference to the erotic than there seems to be.
SB: True, but it is concerned with love. The erotics of God is a subject I stumbled on when I was reading Origen, and it’s a really interesting, serious subject, in fact there’s an academic industry going on around it, especially in Australia and America. The idea starts with God’s love for Israel, and the Song of Songs: God being the groom and Israel being the bride. It’s taken over by St Paul and Bernard of Clairvaux and Richard Rolle and so on to Teresa of Avila. And St John of the Cross. GL: It’s something quite different from the erotic in the usual sense, though I think it includes that, but it’s got a classical calm about it. On the other hand, I was struck by the grim Hopkins epigraph to Damnatio Memoriae: ‘Only what word/wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban/Bars…’ That seems very pessimistic, more so than the book itself.
SB: The deeper you believe, the more terrible the prospect that it’ll be a load of rubbish. This is why one poem in Erotics – ‘I cannot tell you how the Greek within my temples burns’ – is about the absolute worthlessness and uselessness of all knowledge, of all faith and everything. Any true believer knows exactly what it is to feel that sense of disbelief.
GL: Both this book and The Erotics of God have extensive prose notes – what you cal, in fact, an Exegesis. Why is this?
SB: What set me up on this, believe it or not, was a letter from Michael Schmidt. I sent him a manuscript of Damnatio and he wrote me back a really articulate and interesting letter talking about hooks. How do I as a reader of modern poetry get into the poem if I can’t hook into the language, if there aren’t enough hooks there for me to get my intellect and my passions and all the rest of it involved? So I saw that there was a problem here, to do with references as such. So I worked and worked and it took an entire summer to find all these references, so I could write down these references, what I was talking about. I’ll give you a concrete example of what I mean. ‘Damnatio Memoriae’, the title poem of that book, it’s actually cast for 145 different voices. These are all historical figures and they’re all speaking in their own words, some by way of translation.
GL: And you don ‘t feel that this amount of exegesis is an admission that the poetry is not managing to communicate?
SB: No, it’s the other way round: the poetry is formed by the act of being a poet and being a maker of the thing. But if it’s incomprehensible to an adolescent boy or girl, or to a literary editor of great distinction, there’s something wrong. You can’t change one, and you can’t get away from the other. So if you put the two together something might happen.
GL: I wonder whether in these books you’re somehow continuing a project that your father might have initiated, because he also was preoccupied with spirituality and the question of evil, wasn’t he?
SB: O yes, because after all I was brought up by my parents like everybody else, not just my father but my mother too, I adored these people and we got on very well. And at the heart of it all was the question, What is art, what is it for? And what’s good, what’s evil? I spent ten years talking to my father about whether there was something we could say was evil, categorically as such. And we came down to a conclusion that there was.
GL: I suppose your idea of evil would be typified by the poem in Erotics called ‘The Nuthoods ‘. In that poem you say ‘The nuthoods fear no consequence/in hel they’re those you’ll meet/As ordinary and as kind/on any suburb street’ and that ‘They live in hell by force of will…Usurping God.’
SB: This refers to Heidegger. This colossal mistake which he made in the 1930s of identifying the Nazi cause with the divinity of God and the divinity of nature. He realised his mistake later on, but I call this the Heideggerian mistake and it features prominently in The Erotics of God. It’s a sort of modern symbol of the fall of man.
GL: The question of history certainly dominates the central book of the trilogy, The Matter of Europe. I find that book quite unclassifiable. It seems an attempt to encompass the whole of time. You have these eight diagrams or tables. One of cosmology, one of human evolution, then six ‘Cultural Sketches’ of closer and closer focus, the first running from 5 million BC, the last just of cultural figures aged twenty and over in the year 2000. I suppose it’s possible to see it as a vast foundation or footnote to the two books of poems, isn’t it? Because it connects with the exegeses in both volumes.
SB: Dead right. And there’s an index of selected names, and there are lots of great minds that I go into there with a little explanation of what and who they are.
GL: So what kind of book is The Matter of Europe?
SB: I call it a reference book. Often myself I’ve wanted to have this to hand – like if I go to Pembrokeshire, and see these rocks which are millions of years old, but where exactly do they fit into the scale of time? These seven ages are all set in the same scale. Each page leads into the next, there’s a logical sequencing so that if you come across anything in history or prehistory you just have to take a quick flick to this book and you can place it immediately. So it’s a book to be used.
GL: And how if at all do you see this relating to your work as Editor of The London Magazine?
SB: Well, if you want to know what my editorial policy is, just read The Matter of Europe because it is absolutely derived from it.
GL: So you’re trying in The London Magazine to embody that sense of our having a place in a huge tradition, a huge cultural world? Do you look for indications that writers are aware of that inheritance?
SB: I think it will come through. It’s something to do with ‘What is the language using us for?’ in the W.S. Graham poem. I read lots and lots of manuscripts and I know exactly what I’m looking for. Sometimes your mind sort of fudges over and blanks out because you’re not reading anything – there’s nothing there, and then suddenly you’ll come across a young poet like Helena Nelson for example: beautiful lyrics from Scotland, and I think ‘Wow!’ because that’s the tradition. And then she writes to me because I query a line or two, and she says it’s from an old Scottish ballad, and I see it’s come straight out of the conduit of tradition.
GL: Do you feel that you’ve discovered any particularly significant writers while you’ve been editing the London?
SB: I think all the ones I get involved with and take the trouble to live with and to publish I regard as in some way significant. Some of them are well known, some of them are young. They come in from all over the world. I’m just a talent spotter, that’s what I am as an editor. So… Some young writer like Swithin Cooper – Tom Crowther is another young man at Oxford – Vanessa Austin Locke, 21 at Sussex University – and there are others whose names I know like Lynn Wycherly but for their ages I don’t enquire…
GL: And do you judge ultimately by intuition?
SB: Well, I call it the furnace, the critical furnace. All the work that’s submitted to me is examined in this room, and it’s pretty hot in there! It either burns up and it becomes nothing, or else it survives and it glows – rather like the heart of a tilley lamp which is made of silk and in the fire it doesn’t collapse, it glows and sends out the light. So I think, ‘Ah, this I want to live with!’ And like all editors I’m hungry for the real stuff. But also there was something I wanted to say about all three of these books. I saw Ruth Padel quoting Michael Donaghy in PN Review recently. He was talking about a poem by George Herbert called ‘A Wreath’ and Donaghy – God rest his soul – said, ‘This is no mere puzzle-box but a labour of intense devotion.’ That’s what I do. All my work is along the same lines. It always has been since I took up this road in early youth.

This interview is taken from PN Review 168, Volume 32 Number 4, March – April 2006. For the full online version of PN Review, please go to www.pnreview.co.uk