David Constantine: You can never settle down in language

David Constantine will be reading from his recent collection Belongings at Berwick Literary Festival’s Bloodaxe Poetry Event – live, online and free – on Sunday 17 October 2021 alongside poet Heidi Williamson and featuring Tishani Doshi’s superb video God at the Door. David spoke to Festival blogger Harry Cochrane and shared his thoughts on closure, punctuation, the status of the arts, Boris Johnson’s language skills and so much more…

Q. You’re doing a reading at the Literary Festival on the 17 October with Heidi Williamson. When you do a reading, how do you put the ‘setlist’ together? Are there poems that you always draw from? Does it depend on the place, the audience?

A. I try to think about whom I’m addressing. The way I lectured at [Durham] university – I didn’t read my notes, I spoke. Because that way I could see how I was doing; I could look at faces, gauge the response, think quickly. It’s the same with a poetry reading. I always have a list of things I would like to do. But with a real audience you can see how you’re getting on, and that’s quite important, really.

Q. It took me quite a while, having read Belongings, to twig that the title has a double meaning: ‘Belongings’ as in personal effects, as well as ‘belonging’ somewhere. If the volume has a keynote, what would you say it was, and is it a new theme for you, or an amplification of old themes in your work?

A. I don’t let things go. The things that I grew into at the age of fifteen, sixteen, and my sense of my family and what I was doing there and what I owed it. I know of lives that ‘get over’ things, and discard this or that, and find pastures new. For good or ill, I don’t do that. I hope I’m still adding to my work, but I’m a great believer in anything but linear progress. I don’t think the idea of linear progress is true, or is even a useful fiction. And I don’t like the idea of closure, although I understand why people need it. I don’t think that anything comes to an end. I don’t believe that life is linear, and I don’t think the line of poetry is linear.

I have the very strong belief that things are infinite, infinitely interesting and infinitely important. And the fact of growing old – you are the same person, but in other ways you’re not the same person. If I read D. H. Lawrence now, and I’ve read him all my life, my reading of him is different. I don’t think you need a life so cluttered up with belongings that you acquire or discard. The belongings you have become talismanic.

Q. Seamus Heaney argued that poetry still enjoys an aura of the ‘sacred’. Is that true, and if so, is that a helpful thing to believe?

A. You sense the peculiar aura of it. At the same time, one of the very great things in contemporary poetry – with reservations, at times – has been to make poetry accessible to all people. An awful lot of people think that poetry is not for them; but poetry is no good if it’s not in and among the people. It’s not there for a small clique of the highly educated. Whether that constitutes the sacred – it constitutes something exceedingly important, without which we cannot do. But you could say the same for music, for all the arts. I passionately believe in the status of the arts as more than some sort of ‘add-on’ or an indication of culture. I believe profoundly that we can’t do without them.

Our leaders fail to see that. There’s an anecdote attributed to Winston Churchill. In the middle of the war, someone in the coalition cabinet proposed that they cut arts funding because they needed the money. And Churchill is supposed to have said: ‘what else are we fighting for?’

Q. Michael Schmidt [founder of Carcanet and PN Review] once told me to ‘always write against the grain’. Do you ever find yourself falling into a register, an idiom that you have to snap yourself out of?

A. Not just me: readers settle into what they think they know. The responsibility of poetry is to thwart what people think they know. That’s largely a matter of syntax. In the poetry of [Friedrich] Hölderlin, you might get a sentence that runs over twelve lines, in strict meter, and you’re in perpetual expectation of the verb, and so much is piling up between it and you. The brain is in a state of hypertension. It’s an exercise that keeps the thinking mind agile. You can never settle down in language. You don’t want it to be like predictive text.

If you waste your time listening to politicians and reading what they write, you see a language that is absolutely static. It drops all time. I spent not very long once reading Tony Blair’s autobiography, and I found somebody settling into a language that just wasn’t trying. As for Boris Johnson, well, everybody says he’s a wordsmith. It’s not true: he’s a fouler of the language, every sentence that comes out of his mouth is a disgrace, really. He’s not capable of putting words together in a way that the English language deserves.

Q. You mention the word ‘syntax’. I do think it is the lifeblood of poetry, and I despair when I read a lot of poetry that seems to function as lists. You yourself have some pretty lengthy sentences: there’s one in ‘Carousel’ that goes over six quatrains. But there’s a fairly minimalist use of punctuation in Belongings. Is it to make your readers think?

A. I don’t like the clutter of too much punctuation, especially at line endings. Even if you’re rhyming or writing in a strict form, the line ending is critical. The Augustans in English wrote couplets that finished very definitely, line by line. In their poetry, the line is not only a unit of verse, it’s also a unit of sense. Hölderlin and [Bertold] Brecht showed me how to override that, how to make the line of sense override, even contradict the line of verse. You get lines in Brecht where you’re going along very nicely, and you think you’ve got it, but the last word in a line is ‘but’. That’s the poetic and political dialectic working so that you’re in a continual restlessness, which is very good for the brain.

I’ll punctuate my line endings if absolutely necessary. In my prose I stopped using speech marks a long time ago. I wanted to elide between what a character actually says and what the character is thinking. A lot of the characters in my stories, for one reason or another, are rather inarticulate, but full of things to say. The narrative voice enhances the speech of people like my parents’ generation who thought their language didn’t matter.

Q. So with that in mind, does your biography have any resemblance to, say, Tony Harrison’s?

A. Very much. He absolutely sees himself as paradigmatic. There’s always a big first person speaking. You need to think of yourself as unique – you are. On the other hand, you need to recognise that everybody is unique and typical. I’ve rejoiced in feeling myself to be typical.

I don’t say this in any way demeaningly, but my grandmother’s generation had been inured into a feeling of humbleness, which basically said: ‘What you say doesn’t actually matter. We don’t expect you to have the language to articulate it: somebody will be doing that for you.’ However ill or inadequately I’ve proceeded with it, I realised that I had a responsibility. I realised it when my gran, at the end of her life, started talking about her husband, who had been ‘blown to bits’. Those were the words she used. When he signed up, he had had no idea where France was. They went to Blackpool for their holidays.

David Constantine, Tishani Doshi and Heidi Williamson – all featuring in the Bloodaxe Poetry Event at Berwick Literary Festival on 17 October 2021

Q. On the subject of other countries, you and your wife Helen became editors of Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT) in 2003. Tell me about that.

A. It’s an internationalist magazine in its views. It’s always seen itself as a facilitator of speaking, speaking-up, speaking up against. It also, unintentionally, tried to make British poetry – which was quite insular – much more cosmopolitan. Translators fled eastern Europe with their native language, and came to the UK and America, and became translators of their own language into English, or worked with people who could. MPT was at the very beginning of a welcome that was mutually beneficial. British poetry badly needed the feeling that there was a world outside. The very first issue was given over pretty much entirely to poetry from the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, one or two from Israel.

Q. Would it be fair to say that the magazine’s centre of gravity has shifted more to the Middle East?

A. When Helen and I took over we concentrated a lot on Israel and Palestine. We got a lot of good writing from Syria, and the sad thing, of course, is that it comes out of cataclysm. It’s a two-way thing: they badly need to be translated, and we badly need to be aware. MPT continues as an anti-Brexit magazine par excellence: the whole spirit of it is openness to other cultures, other languages, other countries. Poetry is an internationalist being, poems are constantly coming into and out of English. The idea that Helen and I concentrated on was the image of the web, the web of connections, goodwill and mutual dependences worldwide. Cut anywhere, and you weaken it. The idea was that there would be a landing place for good work. Ted Hughes, who founded the magazine, called it ‘an airport for translations’.

We all benefited from the expectation that your third year would be abroad, if you were a language student, as I was. We were sent to France and Germany straight away from school. Right after the Second World War, there was a new Penguin translation of Faust; the BBC started translating German radio plays. There was a colossal effort in these big institutions to reconnect.

Q. I’ll finish with a question about my favourite poem in the book, ‘Dolphin’. It’s a translation of sorts from the ancient Greek poet Anyte of Tegea. The penultimate line ‘Among our trash that will live for ever’ – that can’t be in the original, surely?

A. No, it’s not. I was working on Brecht, and Brecht’s son gave him something called the Greek Anthology, which is a huge collection, running from the sixth century BC to the 1300s, 1400s. There are about four and a half thousand poems in there. I translated a few, because Brecht was very impressed by their epigrammatic nature, and by the ‘thinginess’ of them. The Greeks were terribly good at saying what a sword is like, or what a flower is like. Starting in lockdown, I began making an anthology of my own out of these thousands of poems, particularly poems that address the environment. My Greek’s not good, but it’s good enough to work it out word by word, which produces a sort of nonsense. And from that point I can free myself up.

I pieced together an anthology of poems that largely have to do with what we’re losing, and what we’re in danger of depriving our children and grandchildren of. The Greeks were probably no better than we are; their technology was just limited. But they did have a very strong sense of certain things you must never do. There is a strong sense in the plays and the poetry of that which must not be done, ever. Things that are understood transgressions, for which the punishment is calamitous.

Q. Do you think we don’t really have a concept of transgression anymore?

A. Well, there’s a poem in there which is my version of a Hölderlin chorus from Antigone. In my version it’s man the monster, who wears on his brow ‘there is nothing we will not do.’ Anything that can be done, there’s a certain sort of person, or a certain sort of government, that will do it. Or it will happen by accident, having put yourself so close to it. Clearly the whole tilt in the necessary balance of climate is underway, and we did it. There is no fundamental law, it seems, in human beings, or in certain classes of them, that says ‘that we must not do’. There’s a certain scientific mind that says: ‘if we can do it, we will.’

The Bloodaxe poetry event is live, free and online at Berwick Literary Festival at 1pm on Sunday 17 October to reserve your free place click here

Harry Cochrane lives and works in Florence where he writes for local magazine The Florentine. He contributes literary reviews to the blog Bookstalling

Belongings by David Constantine is available via publisher Bloodaxe Books

Jackie Kaines

I have excellent fun moving words of all shapes and sizes around to create blogs, articles and all sorts of interesting other wordy things.