At risk of sounding ungracious or curmudgeonly, I don't get excited about a lot of contemporary UK poetry. It may sound paradoxical to then go on to state that I feel the general quality and range of British poetry is in many ways stronger than it was 30 years ago, when I first became interested in literature. It seems that most poets of today are open to a far wider diversity of influences and formal approaches than the rather conservative, narrow gamut of styles employed by 70s/80s poets. If you look at the recent output of Faber and Faber, for example, it sometimes seems as though the avant garde (or a version of the avant garde) has become the mainstream. It may be that many of these contemporaries have honed their skills in Creative Writing courses and workshops; yet for all the skill and sophistication on display, its as though this has been won at the cost of other elements, with too many poems sounding like showy exercises or assignments, well-turned or adroit or clever but often somehow hollow at the core.
Ian Pindar's Constellations (Carcanet) was a book that stood out for me as distinct from this tendency, full of the ambitiousness, craft and scope of earlier 20th Century Modernists, a genuine poetry of ideas which also manages to be remarkably sensuous, lyrical and often moving. Equally, from reading Ian's blog, I had the sense of a writer I shared a broadly similar outlook and tastes with. Last autumn we began an email correspondence which slowly ("glacially", as Ian says) formed into a dialogue touching on his poetry and its contexts, writers we're both interested in and other relevant concerns. I print it here now with Ian's approval (and editorial contributions).
OD: I have been re-reading Constellations, which was as you know a book I was immediately drawn to when it was published in 2012 and one which I wrote about very enthusiastically on this blog. I have to say the pleasure of reading these poems for me has not diminished on revisiting the volume. They have several qualities which mark them out from pretty much all other contemporary British poetry: firstly, a tone of exuberance and delight, of "luxe, calme et volupte" which can only be called celebratory.
IP: Thanks, Oliver. I think ‘celebratory’ is quite right. While I was working on the book my young son was diagnosed with autism and this had a big impact on me. Rather than wanting to be some kind of poète maudit (as I once did) I now wanted to affirm life and love and all the good things we can find if we look hard enough. Looking back, I see it as the work of somebody who is burning bright before they go out, somebody heading for a fall or driving at great speed into a wall, because soon after Constellations was finished I cracked up a little, as Scott Fitzgerald would say. So that’s me burning brightly before it all turns to ashes. That sounds melodramatic, but on another level it’s exactly what happened.
Another quality which makes Constellations distinctive is what seems a conscious design to recapture a mode of mellifluous lyric beauty that has all but disappeared from British poetry but which connects with both an earlier poetic lineage in English and with traditions in other languages less hampered by "the gentility principle" than ours.
Well, it wasn’t a conscious decision to go beyond the gentility principle. Nobody has ever accused me of gentility. Maybe it’s a class thing. Although I was at Oxford, my father was a builder. I worked on a roof with him during the Long Vac. So I just don’t fit in anywhere. The Movement never interested me much. Larkin a little. But my first love was T. S. Eliot. In the end I found American poetry more congenial. It woke me up to other possibilities. Not just the founding fathers of modern American poetry, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, but the New American Poetry, the New York School, especially Ashbery, and the Beats and the Black Mountain poets, especially Robert Duncan and Charles Olson.
Constellations is also intriguing in its format as a book-length sequence rather than just a collection of individual poems. Can you say something about the concept behind the book: did you conceive of it, for example, as a single long-form composition (perhaps in the tradition of those American Modernists you just cited, who all wrote extended texts of one kind or another) or as a poem-cycle?
I was very taken by Robert Duncan’s idea of an endless poem. He rejected the obligation to write tidy lyrics with beginnings, middles and ends. His Structure of Rime and Passages are never-ending poems. Constellations isn’t quite like that, because there is a sort of ambient narrative and the collection ends with the end of everything, eternal night/winter and the heat death of the universe. Where Duncan saw poems as areas, I saw them as constellations, assemblages, word-clusters. There are 88 constellations in modern astronomy, so there are 88 poems in five sections. The first section is a sort of fanfare, introducing the seasons. The second touches upon a seaside love affair. The third is darker and suggests some kind of economic crash and a war. I was suffering personally from the recession and I felt I was writing in the face of these two forces working against me, autism and austerity. A losing battle, of course. The fourth section is broadly philosophical. It ends with a poem about the Plane of Matter, an attempt to explain an idea that came from my reading of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. I dropped out of a PhD on Deleuze many years ago, but he stays with me. The fifth section is about poetry itself. I wanted to argue for a poetry distinct from prose. The last section is a general closing down as winter comes, then night, and all the stars going out, planets becoming uninhabitable and cold. The heat death of the universe. It’s only a hypothesis, of course, but it puts out all the constellations in my book.
Fascinating answer - returning to the book with a sense of how the parts form a kind of loose narrative-arc has lent it even greater depth and continuity for me. I also love the idea you took from Duncan about a kind of never-ending poem and I can see how this informs the loose syntax (or parataxis?) of the poems and the way you build up clauses without any need for a linear momentum or 'argument' to the poem, juxtaposing these clauses without verbs or connectives almost more like musical phrases. Were there other poets who particularly influenced the musicality of your style here?
Wallace Stevens, a poet who continues to infuriate and fascinate me, is the biggest influence here, not so much a source or a model but a mood. I was also very taken by H.D.’s decision to just number the poems in Trilogy, rather than giving them titles. So I suppose in Constellations I was doing everything you’re not supposed to do: no titles and word-clusters rather than conventional lyric poems (although as you say, they are lyrical). Constellations doesn’t really fit in anywhere, but I’ve always liked that Robert Frost thing about being a lone wolf.
As a young man I loved HD as well - or at least her short Imagist works. I remember trawling through Hermetic Definition, Helen in Egypt and the Trilogy with feigned but actually waning enthusiasm - Eliot hit the mark when he said her work "lacks the element of surprise". The highly-wrought, highly-strung manner which works beautifully in a 6-line lyric fails to hold the interest over a book-length poem all in the same elevated style. However, I can see what Duncan was responding to in her in The HD Book - it is her mythopoeic intensity (delivered in a much less egocentric, masculine, heroic way than, say, The Cantos) that he brought forward.
If we turn from Constellations to your debut Carcanet volume Emporium, there is a marked difference in both tone and form. The mood is darker, touched with surrealism and with a frequent satirical edge to the poems. The main influence seems to be the Eliot of Poems 1920 and particular the quatrain poems with their almost Augustan sharpness. Can you say something about this dramatic contrast between the two books?
It’s odd because as you say Emporium is darker, but when my life actually became very dark my poetry brightened up, hence Constellations. I can only put it down to having learned humility or something. Humility before life, but also before poetry. The first big poetic influence on me as a teenager was T. S. Eliot. He seemed everything a poet ought to be. Now I don’t read him so often, haven’t read him for a long time. It’s not that I don’t think he’s a great poet, because he undoubtedly is. I think perhaps discovering other American poets broke the spell a little. I can see why William Carlos Williams, for instance, thought that Eliot represented everything one ought to resist. Williams no doubt hated those Frenchified quatrain poems, but I just wanted to try writing one once!
Your first book was a biography of James Joyce. Could you say something about how this project came about and to what extent your interest in Joyce relates to your enthusiasm for Eliot and other Modernist poets? To me, many passages in Ulysses contain the most densely poetic language of the 20th century and have always been an important inspiration for my own writing and I'm wondering whether it's been the same for you.
The Joyce book came about because a friend asked if I’d write a short biography for her new imprint. I chose Joyce because he was always a favourite. I studied Joyce and T S Eliot under Terry Eagleton at Oxford and wrote a little thesis on Finnegans Wake. Anyway, the book is aimed at the ‘general reader’ not academics – and while writing it I kept thinking of that Auden line: ‘A shilling life will give you all the facts.’
I remember most of all the tortuous negotiations with the Joyce Estate over permissions and copyright. My wife was expecting our first baby, so it was a stressful time. I have a file full of correspondence with James Joyce’s grandson, Stephen James Joyce, the executor of the Estate. He was helpful, although we didn’t always see eye to eye. I’m grateful to him for one detail that he told me does not appear in any other Joyce biography: in his final months, while in Zurich, Joyce would walk through the snow with his grandson and every now and then he would stop and produce a little black notebook to record some thought; he would ask Stephen to turn round and he would place the notebook on the boy’s back and write. That notebook has never been found – a great pity as it would have given us some indication of where Joyce was heading after Finnegans Wake.
One aim of my book was to make Finnegans Wake less intimidating. It has a reputation for being either gibberish or impossibly erudite. I wanted to demystify it and show that it is in fact terrific fun to read. I am satisfied with Joyce. I feel in a funny kind of way that I did right by him. One reviewer said I had made Joyce and his work “funagain” – that’s good enough for me.
I can’t say Joyce has influenced my poetry in any way. I once attempted to write in a kind of Finneganese and it was awful. I think ‘Loon’ in Emporium flirts with being Joycean, although its presiding spirit is Samuel Beckett. I may be wrong, but I thought your poem ‘Local History’ from Human Form had something Joycean about it (‘stomps sockfoot’).
As for Modernism, it’s interesting how Modernism became almost a dirty word in Britain after the Second World War. In A Sinking Island Hugh Kenner quotes Donald Davie: ‘the silent conspiracy which now unites all the English poets from Robert Graves down to Philip Larkin, and all the critics, editors and publishers too, the conspiracy to pretend that Pound and Eliot never happened.’ Immediately post-war, Pound was out of the picture: a fascist and a traitor (this, I think, helped greatly to discredit Modernism in some minds). T S Eliot survived in British affections – aided by his practical cats – but did he maybe help to bury Modernism when he executed his reactionary turn, abandoning the avant-garde and reinventing himself as ‘an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics’? Then along came Larkin, an insistent enemy of Modernism and of ‘difficult’ poetry generally. He famously attacked Modernism – the 3 P’s: Pound, Parker and Picasso (and he hated Finnegans Wake).
So in post-war Britain we were left with a lyric tradition based on the triad of Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas and Philip Larkin. Things have changed a lot recently. British poetry is always playing catch-up and only now is it assimilating post-war American poetry, especially the New York School. Everyone sounds like Frank O’Hara.