Attended an interesting event at the Lutyens and Rubinstein bookshop in Notting Hill the other night. Adam Philips was in conversation with Oli Hazzard, who last year had his first book of poems Between Two Windows published by Carcanet, a volume full of linguistic verve, inventiveness and promise.
Philips began very much in chin-stroking psychoanalyst mode, gently probing an uncomfortable-looking Hazzard on his childhood and upbringing; one wondered if this was going to turn into a kind of public therapy session. But his questions soon took a more literary bent as they discussed influences and intertexts: chiefly, in the case of Hazzard, John Ashbery, whose work he said had kickstarted his own while at university and is now forming the subject of post-graduate research. Not that, as Philips pointed out, the poems of Between Two Windows are slavishly Ashberian; there's a variance precipitated by Hazzard's writing out of a more English idiom,for example, as well as him being a poet preoccupied with tighter forms and more deliberate constraints than Ashbery has ever gone in for.
Questions around this Oulipan concern brought out what for me were Hazzard's most intriguing comments. When asked what was the value of the set forms and patterns his poems are often composed to, he spoke of how the partial, restricted version of language which results mimes the way in which all language-use is in fact partial and restricted in its perspectives on reality. There's also a ludic, comedic aspect (as with the Stevens of Harmonium) in the often failed attempts of an exaggerated formal design to square up to the ungraspability of the world "out there" (I'm paraphrasing, of course). When Philips followed up with the question "What is form?", however, Hazzard was a bit stumped and who could blame him? It would take a whole book to begin to address such a complex, far-reaching inquiry: perhaps the writing of poems is in itself a prolonged effort to answer this question.