Note to the first interview
This was part of a larger ARC-funded project examining the practices and conditions underlying creative excellence (CI Professor Jen Webb, ARC DP 130100402, 2013–2016). It took place in the village of Rossmore, County Cork, Ireland on 20 June 2013.
Kevin Brophy: What has nurtured you through your writing life as a poet?
James Harpur: I suppose the foundation of why I write poetry is an exploration of spiritual truths, such as the meaning of life: is there a god; is there an afterlife? And does that affect my behaviour? The only means I have to express my explorations is through writing, and I express them most satisfyingly to myself through poetry.
But there are times when I think — to quote Eliot — it’s a mug’s game really.1 You spend a lot of time working on a poem or a collection and very few people read it; and they might have a certain amount of enthusiasm, but it’s never universal. So you’re always being thrown back on yourself as to whether you are on the right path. I think all poets feel that to some extent. I’m sure you do; do you feel that way as well?
Kevin: Yes I do but I think, like you, I find that the deepest concerns I have come out as poetry, and I’m really incapable of writing anything but poetry most of the time. Though some things come out as fiction, and some things come out as essays, the poetry keeps coming back.
James: I agree with that. I can express, or try to express, the most ineffable experiences I’ve had only through poetry. There’s something about poetry. It’s the dynamic between language, painting, and music ... I think it’s Pasternak who said that poetry is a combination of music, meaning and painting.2 And I think it’s those three elements which, together, are more than the sum of their parts, which gives me the feeling that it’s my best chance of expressing the ineffable.
My realm of interest is in the otherworldly, the not-worldly, the spiritual, the transcendent, and the mystical. So I try to disconnect myself from the world, not necessarily consciously. I wrote a poem about a Syrian pillar hermit, called Symeon Stylites,3 who had a life that was a curse, in that the more he tried to get away from the world, the more he attracted people. He started his ascetic life chaining himself to a rock on a mountainside, but people got to hear about him, and they pestered him, so he thought, right, what can I do next? He lived on a platform atop four successively higher pillars, and by the end of his life there were thousands of people camped around his pillar.
I think that’s a wonderful metaphor for the artistic life. That there’s part of you craves — a part of me, sorry, I shouldn’t generalise — that craves to get away from the world. And yet you’re connected, as with an umbilical cord. His column was his umbilical cord but he didn’t realise that. He was literalising his desire to go to heaven and eschew the earth, and yet he found he couldn’t and that, paradoxically, the world bit back at him.
I identify with that need to be disconnected from the world and yet finding that I have to be connected — through earning a living, having a roof over my head, paying bills, having a daughter to educate, playing with my daughter, for example.
Kevin: I was very interested in that Saint Symeon poem. The longer I read it the more I became aware of it as its own long pole, because it’s quite a narrow poem and goes for several pages. And having thought of that I thought, what’s its platform? And its platform is its voice, really.
James: I hadn’t noticed that actually. It’s interesting to hear you say that.
Kevin: The poetry is its own self-contained step away from the world but it’s never so self-contained that it doesn’t have a voice. After all, he preached from the top of his pole. So the poem may be a desire for containment, but there can never be complete containment. And I was interested too because the sorts of things you were saying connect with the sorts of things that Saint Symeon seemed to be coming up against, which is the impossibility of the physical world really connecting with the metaphysical world; the impossibility of the finite world really ever connecting with the infinite world. He seemed to come up against that again and again. Perhaps towards the end there was some kind of a breakthrough, though I don’t really know what its nature was.
James: Well, no one does; there is A Life of Saint Symeon, but it’s hard to say exactly what happened to him in real life. In my poem there is a breakthrough: there’s a sense of him — the character, the voice in the poem — having a reconciliation with his state of being. He has a very Manichaean worldview: Earth/devil/bad, heaven/God/good. But at the end of the poem I think he has become more reconciled with his own humanity. He’s trying to reject his humanity, which means, basically, rejecting the incarnation. In the end, when he sees the pilgrims coming towards him, he has the visionary experience that each one of them is Christ and, therefore, embodied and fully human, and that he’s at peace with his idea of being human. That is, hopefully, what the poem is trying to convey.
Kevin: And was it conveying, for you, some insight into your practice as a poet? Or the place of poetry in connection with the world?
James: I saw it more as my own spiritual, human condition, because I have very marked Symeon tendencies. But it’s been an ongoing thing really, Kevin, this kind of dualism, and it seems to be my theme. Even my latest book is about that. It’s called Angels and Harvesters,4 the angels being at one pole and the Harvesters at the other. So it seems to reflect my own spiritual condition rather than something perhaps more practical, though I suppose it could transform into that.
Kevin: Saint Symeon’s life and that poem are both about the struggle to connect with the world in a way that is spiritually satisfying. Did that also mean that you’d come to some understanding of how your poetry worked in relation to the world?
James: Not really, I don’t think. I don’t really know how my poetry works in relation to the world.
Kevin: It’s mysterious to me but I suppose I’m thinking, okay, Saint Symeon’s gone on a spiritual journey and reached a certain point, and maybe James Harpur has too? And where is poetry in that mix?
James: As a poet I would want my poems to touch and to move as many people as possible, so I’m not like Symeon in that respect. I suppose if Symeon were writing poems he wouldn’t want anyone to read them, because they would be too incarnated to read them; they wouldn’t be pure enough. Whereas, as a poet, I would want as big a readership as possible. I’m constantly dismayed, if someone reads my Symeon poem, and doesn’t know what on earth I’m writing about or why I’m writing about it. I’m totally despondent if someone says or implies, ‘Why on earth did you write about someone living on top of a column for thirty years?’ I think it’s such an interesting thing: why would anyone live on top of a column for thirty years? So I’m un-Symeonlike in regard to poetry and my view of it.
Kevin: Did you come across poetry while you were at school?
James: I came across poetry at primary school, where we did good old Victorian classics like ‘The Lady of Shalott’ by Tennyson, ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Coleridge, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and John Masefield’s ‘Cargoes’. Those were the first poems I was exposed to. So I got the idea that poetry was different from prose, that it was basically verse and rhythm and rhyme. But I’m a very late developer, so it didn’t particularly interest me. It was pleasing but I didn’t think, oh my God!
Kevin: How relevant do you think is education to the type of poetry that you’ve ended up writing?
James: In terms of my own education, I did Latin, Greek and Divinity for my A Levels. I have a lot of Church of Ireland ministers in my background and, when I left school, I was in a very strong Jungian phase. I studied Jung for three years in university, unofficially, and I used to drive my tutors mad by doing Jungian interpretations of King Lear, Gawain and the Green Knight, Ted Hughes’ Crow.
Kevin: It’s great material for Jungian analysis.
James: Brilliant, isn’t it! You’re interested in psychoanalysis yourself, aren’t you?
Kevin: I did a lot of psychology. I’m on the Freudian side of things. I’m a little bit impatient with Jung’s willingness to grow mythology in all sorts of directions. There seems to be an archetype for everything. Freud is a much more limited field, and has a slightly darker way of looking at the world. Jung was probably a bit more open to both the light and the dark.
James: Yes I agree. Freud is Aristotle to Jung’s Plato. But going back to your question: Latin, Greek and Divinity did shape my sensibility to poetry. I think it gave me a real respect for form because Virgil and Homer were very careful about form, the interplay between metre and what you want to say. There’s also the epic vision they have in their long poems. It’s an ambition of mine to write an epic poem, and that’s inspired by them and my studying them at school.
So I think formal education does shape you but I don’t think you need a formal education to write poetry. John Clare said, ‘I found my poems in the fields’.5 There’s William Blake.6 And the British poet Glyn Hughes,7 said, ‘You don’t have to go to university and read English literature because what you do instead is equally important. It might be travel, it might be gardening, it might be going to art college. It could be working in a bank’. And I agree with that. I think what’s crucial is a poetic imagination, and after that everything else is just detail.
I met IA Richards just before he died, and I asked him, ‘Is there anything you regret about your life?’ He said, ‘Yes. That I read English. I should have stuck to Classics.’ He said, ‘You don’t really need to study English, you can just read it. You don’t actually have to do a course in it.’8
Kevin: I was reminded of Blake in reading some of the ways in which you handle rhyme, being aware of how fluid Blake was, how resourceful he was in using rhyme. I can see that kind of thing happening with your longer poems too. There are all sorts of ways of rhyming and sometimes they run a narrow line.
But what part is played in your own poetic practice by relationships to other poets? Is there a community of poets?
James: My relationship with other poets has no impact on my writing. When it comes to writing something, I’m a bit like Goethe, who couldn’t write when there was someone in the house. I’m the same: if my partner and daughter are in the house, I can’t write. So the community of poets wouldn’t be a factor for writing; or it would be a negative factor. But I think only poets know what poets do and their joys and their sufferings, so I find the community of poets important, just for sharing the travails of the work, the process. I do find that very reassuring, to be part of a poetic community.
Kevin: Is it a certain kind of poet out there who gives you comfort, or is it all poets?
James: I suppose a certain kind of poet, one who’s on my own wavelength. Because they deal in imagination, most poets have a common bond; it’s very rare that you’d get a rationalistic, scientific, atheistic style of poet. I have poets who are friends who are atheists, but it’s the largeness of imagination that is important.
I have a panel of about four or five people who read drafts of my work, and I rely on them for different things. There’s someone who is very good with overall structure. There’s someone who is very good at typos, and someone who is very good with other aspects of language. There’s one who hardly says anything but anything he does say is usually completely correct. So I think it’s important to have a range of different people who have different skills, maybe for the music of the piece, maybe for spotting clichés, maybe for the overall structure. I think every poet needs that.
Kevin: And do you show each of your poems to the panel?
James: I would probably show maybe one or two if I’m struggling, then later I’d probably show a full collection to each of them saying, ‘This is what I’m hoping to publish, please be as cruel as possible.’ Is that what you do?
Kevin: I had a very close friend for maybe twenty-five, thirty years and we showed each other everything that we wrote. And there have been writing groups that I’ve either formed around myself or joined. Each of those seems to last maybe three or four, maybe five years and then they dissipate for one reason or another. So I’m finding it more and more difficult to get the kind of feedback that I need. Over the last couple of years I’ve been working on a new and selected with John Leonard Press. John Leonard himself is an excellent editor and he’s been very good for me. But he’s quite old and he’s blind, so we’ve got to the point now where I sit and read my poems to him.
But I’m less and less in need of feedback. I would like to have one or two poets whose time I don’t mind taking up. I haven’t found them at this stage, partly because I’m a teacher, so the relationships I form are with former students and that’s not quite the right relationship for that to and fro. And the friend to whom I showed everything: I think he’s sort of run out of steam a bit, and I shouldn’t be imposing on him.
James: Maybe you need fresh eyes as well, because different people see different things?
Kevin: Yes. I’m in an interesting situation. With my latest book (Radar9) I did a lot of the editing myself. I used Andrea, my partner, as a reader for the prose poems, and she was very, very good. But she doesn’t normally read poetry.
James: It’s always good to have someone like that. I do the same with Evie: she’ll say, ‘What does it mean?’, and I’ll say, ‘Oh I see what you mean. It doesn’t make much sense, does it?’ I think that’s crucial, because poets always have a blind spot. You can revise a poem, and eighty-five per cent of the time you’ll think, yeah, I’ve got it! But there’s just a line or something where it doesn’t work, and you just don’t see it.
Kevin: What do you do when your panel criticises your work?
James: Sometimes I do agree with them, sometimes I don’t. I’m writing a poem at the moment, for John F Deane. He’s doing an anthology on modern responses to Jesus. I’m in the process of writing my poem, and there’s a bit where the sort-of-narrator is on the island of Patmos, in the cave where St John had his revelation. I showed this to a friend who didn’t know who St John was, and I made a reference to the Book of Revelation. He didn’t know why I’d put in those words, and he crossed it out. So I explained the references and the allusions to him, and he said, ‘Oh actually that makes some sense now’. So I think you have to use your own judgment to some extent.
But I think that if readers have a problem with something and give a reason for it, even if you disagree with it, there usually is an underlying problem. They sense there’s something not quite right, and they just haven’t articulated the right reason, or they picked on the wrong thing to explain their hesitation. You have to distance yourself, I think. You have to treat it as ‘the work’ rather than ‘my work’. So I almost always take heed of what people say, even if I disagree with the reasons they give for their hesitations.
Kevin: That’s an interesting answer. You also teach creative writing, which means you conduct workshops. How do you manage the workshops in terms of getting people to listen to criticism and then sort through criticism?
James: I set out guidelines right at the start. I say, ‘Look, every person comes with a piece of work which is personal, which they’ve worked on, which they feel confident enough to show to the group, and I’d like you to give a comment on the poem, which is as honest and as tactful as possible. If you don’t like it and you don’t think it’s good, don’t say it’s absolute shit; say it’s not working because of this reason and give a reason.’ I suppose my overriding concern is, what’s the sort of comment that would help you with your own poem, that you feel you could give to someone else? I stress honesty; I say, ‘If you don’t understand an allusion, say so. If you don’t understand a word, say so. If you like one image but not another, say so.’
A lot of people in creative writing groups don’t have three years of an English degree, so all you can hope for is an honest response. And that’s the hardest thing because people are afraid of seeming stupid or garbled or naïve or unsophisticated. There are so many social forces that make us not tell the truth. I even find that, as a facilitator, if I don’t understand something in a poem, I’m thinking, gosh am I going to admit to it? I try to set an example by saying, ‘Oh actually, I probably should know who Shiva is, but I don’t’. So I try to create an atmosphere of honesty, and inculcate the idea that you are trying to help the person, which may mean giving something discouraging or negative, but in a tactful way.
Kevin: So when a person does provide an honest response and it’s a response of disappointment or puzzlement, do you have instructions to the writer on how to deal with that?
James: I do. I say, ‘Look, you’re brave enough to bring a poem and to read it out aloud or show it to other people. You’re going to get nine responses, one from each person. You’re going to be confused because some are going to say, No we don’t like the title and some will say, Yes we do like the title. You have to respond only to those comments that resonate with your deepest feelings. If you’ve had a reservation about the title and someone else says that they have a hesitation then you should really think about it. You should not apply a democratic principle: eight people say the title’s rubbish, and only one says it’s fantastic. You have to gain an impression of who to trust, or who’s on your wavelength, who’s being honest. I’ve been in workshops a long time and I think you do build up a sense of people’s honesty. I’ve been in some awful groups where there were people motivated by bitchiness and gossip and wanting to derail you.
Kevin: The way I conduct workshops is very similar to what you are describing except that — because of the luxury I have, of having a whole semester — I make sure that the poem gets distributed the week before we discuss it so, in my mind anyway, you should have looked up allusions you don’t know, words you don’t know, and you need to have read it more than once by the time we talk about it. So honesty is the big thing, but it’s an honesty that has developed over the period of a week in response to a poem.
On your own reading: how regularly do you read poetry, and which form of writing comprises the bulk of your reading?
James: [laughing] This sounds like the headmaster’s question, doesn’t it? How much poetry do you read, Harpur? How regularly do you read? Having studied English at university I’ve read the canon in a sketchy kind of way, and homed in on a few favourite poets. As for poetry that I read now, I would return to my favourite canonical poets: Yeats, Eliot, Blake, et cetera, et cetera. The bulk of my reading, though, is books given to me by fellow poets; so, for example, Radar will be on my radar. I read a lot of contemporary poetry, simply because I’m at that stage where people are kind enough to give me their books. And I find it also interesting when you get to know someone. You get to know their lives a bit, and it makes it all the more interesting.
Kevin: And does that shape your writing, stimulate your writing in certain ways?
James: Well I’m a bit double-edged about that; I think it was Philip Larkin who said that if you read a brilliant poem you feel pissed off. You feel jealous, or you think ‘Oh my God, I’m no good!’ or, ‘I could never do that’. If it’s a bad poem — or a poem you think is bad — you think, ‘Why have I wasted my time on that?’ So I don’t get influenced, really, by other people’s poems. I really get influenced by nonfiction writers, spiritual writers ... Do you know Krishnamurti?
Kevin: Yes, I’ve enjoyed his writing.
James: Well, he’d be my major influence, which is very tricky because I have a feeling he is anti-art; and I have a long-standing dialogue with a friend and also with myself about Krishnamurti and art, which is a fascinating question.
Kevin: I hadn’t picked that up. Is it that he says nothing about art?
James: A bit more than that, I’m afraid. To put it very crudely, he’ll say something like, You see a tree outside and you have no relationship with that tree unless you enter into one and become, as it were, almost at one with the tree. And if that happens, if you have this relationship with a tree or with a blackbird or with a stone or whatever it is, then why write about it? What is the need to then go further? And if you do write about it, are you not perhaps impairing the relationship you had with it? The intrusion of consciousness brings in a level of being and therefore impairs the relationship you had before that happened. This is my simplified version of what he doesn’t say explicitly, but implies. Then how do you write, post-Krishnamurti? My poet friend thinks it’s absolutely fine, that he can see a way around it, but I find that it goes right to the heart of my poetic being and my poetic practice. I’m almost on the verge of giving up, because of Krishnamurti.
Kevin: The position you describe resonates with his reluctance to be a leader or a spokesperson, because it’s one of those extra things that are not required. And yet the paradox is that you are reading him; and me too, so there is some bluff naiveté in his position.
James: Yes, entirely.
Kevin: Let’s go on to questions of practice. Auden writes, ‘When we genuinely speak we don’t have the words ready to do our bidding, we have to find them. We don’t know exactly what we are going to say until we’ve said it, and we say and hear something new that’s never been said or heard before’. Which is a nice question to come to, after your discussion about whether or not you should write about the tree.
James: I’m not sure I’d say, ‘When we genuinely speak’. I think we never have the words ready to do our bidding. Every time you open your mouth you don’t really know what you are going to say, which is exciting, because the link between the thought process and language is mysterious. But think of what Ted Hughes calls ‘the sacred trance’, a sort of meditation, or what Jung calls ‘the active imagination’, a sort of slightly focused daydream state. You’re not in a full daydream where you don’t know where you’ve been afterwards; you are slightly in control of it. It’s a way into language and poetic thought that I use. It’s almost like the state of fishing, where you are stationary, you’re focused on a float, and you’re aware of time moving and the river and the wind in the trees slightly and the breeze and you’re waiting for something to happen and then you might see the float being nibbled and then you have a kind of eruption of something, of thought that has manifested as words, in what you scribble down. So if a writer came to me for advice about finding words, I’d say, ‘Don’t read. Be still, meditate. Try and find yourself in the sacred trance’.
I find too that poems come to me out of the blue. I was in a church in Limerick, a Protestant church, and I came across a slit in the wall, like a letterbox, and I thought nothing of it. And then I saw a little notice underneath it and it said Lepers’ Squint. I thought, wow that’s weird. I didn’t know what a squint was. It turns out that it was a slit in the wall for medieval lepers who weren’t allowed in the church, and during the mass when a bell rang inside the church the lepers made a queue outside, or swarmed around the slit, the squint as it was called, and one by one they would thrust out their hands and the priest would drop a piece of the host onto the hand. And I thought, that’s the most amazing thing I’ve heard for a long time. I had a visual image of what the priest would see: disembodied hands; white, rejected. And I knew, from that second, I’d write a poem. I didn’t know how the poem would shape itself, and it shaped itself in a slightly different way to how I imagined it, but that’s how poems really come to me: just being seized. I think you carry around your inner world with you, and you’re waiting, like Frankenstein’s monster, for a sudden bolt of lightning, and suddenly you’re sitting upright.
Kevin: When I listen to you talking about that experience I think also about the series of sonnets on Irish saints,10 which seems a much more deliberate exercise. Though maybe it wasn’t?
James: No, it wasn’t: I got seized. When I first came here to West Cork, I was in the classic place where the whole culture is really pagan: folklore, belief in the Sídhe (the fairies), and some of the Christian practices – and yet it has one of the most conservative churches in the world, the Catholic Church in Ireland. I was coming to the epicentre of my own theme — pagan, Christian, and so on. I think those sonnets in The Dark Age are really a manifestation of that theme, again and again. It’s really one poem written fifteen times.
Kevin: The one that caught my attention very much was Saint Gobnait. It sent me to Wikipedia to look up the mini life story. And it’s a beautiful poem, once you know the bones of the story. There’s also a poem in that book about seeing an ultrasound scan.
James: Yes. It draws on an everyday event as opposed to a mythological one. My fear of mortality is huge and that’s what that the Gobnait poem is about, the idea of someone saying, ‘When you see nine white deer, then that’s curtains.’ I find that terrifying. [laughing]
Kevin: How quickly do you write?
James: There’s an initial rush and then I take ages to refine it. There’s the steady cooling down, and you bring other writing aspects into play. After the initial rush I get a rough idea of how long the poem will be; and its rough shape: whether it’s going to be skinny lines or expansive lines. Then when I begin the second draft I start to think, what’s the music of the poem? I find some poems benefit from meter: I did sonnets about the death of my father, and I did a villanelle sequence about the death of my mum. My mum died of a stroke very quickly; within twenty minutes she was in a coma. The thing I wanted to convey was the shock, not the grief. And when you are in shock, the same thought keeps coming around. Oh my God, she’s going to die. Oh my God, she’s going to die. Oh my God, where’s the bloody ambulance. That kind of thing. So I thought, when I was looking at the raw material, it’s a villanelle. It has to be a villanelle. So that’s how that came about.
Kevin: Let’s talk about composing and editing. Are they similar processes, for you?
James: No, they’re different. Composing is like putting your car into neutral, and editing is more like putting it into gear. In composing you have to try to create an ambience of ‘anything can happen’, and not to exclude possibilities. Because a poem is speaking to you and it wants to be incarnated, it’s up to you to listen to it, because it may take you to a place you weren’t sure about or hadn’t thought of, a much better place, a more exciting place. Perhaps what you thought was the poem was in fact the first clue to an even more exciting treasure hunt. And that’s very hard, because the temptation is to seize upon the little bar of gold you’ve got, rather than wait for the big Incan treasure waiting at the end.
You have to listen. You have to keep an open mind, keep your mind open, keep your heart open. And then, at some point, you wake up, put it in your top drawer, and later you look at it again and it’s a different process. You have to then make sure it’s not gobbledygook, because you write all types of stuff in the flush of excitement and then regret it. It’s like being in love really: you can say all sorts of stuff on the first date and then you think, My God!
Kevin: Yeah, that’s the great thing about being a writer, I think, that all your drafts can go into the drawer or disappear. Now, coming back to the question of composing: how do you know when you’ve finished a poem?
James: I suppose the answer is that you don’t know, because you’re working in a corruptible medium. And because there’s no chemical formula, you never know when a poem is finished.
Kevin: So at that first composition stage, when you’re copying down maybe those first three drafts, does it include a finish?
James: It might convey a sense of where the poem’s heading, an ending. Yes, it might do. But an ending is different from it being finished. I might have a fantastic ending but the poem might not be finished, in the sense that the balance might be wrong, or the style might be wrong. So do you mean finish or ending?
Kevin: I think I mean both. That’s a very interesting perspective on it.
James: Because, for example, when you are writing sonnets, it’s very easy to get a tidy ending, a couplet, but the poem might not be finished at all. It might have been hijacked into a premature ending by the neatness of the couplet, which is an easy trap to fall into. I think, like yourself I’m sure, you get a sense for when you’ve done as much as you can on a poem. You may have a sense that it’s not quite right but it’s as near as you can get it, and to tinker with it any more would make it worse. And you’ve shown it to people and they like it or they can’t see anything major wrong with it. So it’s usually a compromise.
I think all poems are improvable. You look back on poems you’ve written fifteen years ago and you think, oh I’m really not sure about that adjective or whatever it is, but that’s because you’re working with corruptible materials. Words shift, change their position, slip, slide, perish, decay, will not stay still.
Kevin: It’s interesting isn’t it, because the canonical poems you learn to love, you don’t want to change a word.
James: That’s true. I think it’s true.
Kevin: Do you want to talk about what qualities you want the ending of a poem to have?
James: I would see the poem as an organic whole. I’m not sure you can say what effect the ending would have as opposed to the whole poem.
Kevin: It’s too general a question. I was thinking of my recent experience with a poem, a very short poem, where when I got to the end of it I thought, it’s not going to work unless I come back to something that was in the beginning of the poem. There needs to be a discussion. And I think that was at the back of my question.
James: Foreshadowed? Yes. Right.
Kevin: Other poets who’ve talked around this have talked about a poem, I don’t know, somehow naturally coming to a close.
James: Bluffers! [laughing] No, I think you do get that. I think I can think of poems where it just felt right. It had some reconciliation.
Kevin: Let’s finish with this: are there particular effects that you would like to have on your readers?
James: That’s a tricky one. It depends on what you were aiming for in the poem. If you were writing a funny poem, you’d want them to chuckle, I suppose. I would like my readers to be moved, intrigued; I’d like them to have a mini-metamorphosis in reading it. The very act of reading a poem should have almost a chemical effect on a reader, if the poem is good enough. So you’re wanting to give them an experience of something. It may not be the one you actually intend them to have, because you can’t gauge that, but you want them to have an experience of having read something which has affected them; in a visceral way, probably, and a cerebral way as well.
I also would like my readers to feel less lonely because they suddenly think, oh yes, that happened to me or God yes, he’s expressed something I was dimly aware of but hadn’t expressed before. So you’re looking for long-lost friends, really, people you’ve lost touch with. I’m thinking of Plato’s idea in the Symposium, of the gods splitting people into two at birth and giving each half a kick and they spend the rest of their lives trying to find each other.11 I think, for me, that’s what a poem tries to do. One half is the poem and the other half is the reader, or the readers, and you’re trying to make a connection, at a profound level. It’s a constant disappointment that I don’t, or not to the extent that I would like: I’m sure that’s what every poet says.
Note to the second interview
In 2016, James Harpur was awarded the Vincent Buckley Travelling Fellowship. He spent some weeks in Melbourne giving talks and readings at the University of Melbourne and also in a small bar in Fitzroy. He travelled down the coast, visited Geelong, and investigated the possibility that he was related to the early Australian poet, Charles Harpur. James also spent some time in Sydney during this stay.
Following is a brief exchange reflecting upon his recent time in Australia. This second interview took place over an email exchange between 22 August and 1 September 2017.
Kevin: What were your aims when you came to Australia as the Vincent Buckley Fellow?
James: Part of my aims was not to have too many aims. I had a feeling that people and situations would occur that would jog my hand, take me to experiences I couldn’t predict. As well as that, I assumed I would explore the Australian physical and cultural terrain as much as a month would allow me. I can’t emphasise how much Australia seemed like a mythic place to me, a place at the edge of the world, a place we used to dig to on the beaches of our childhood. All my expectations of Australia, all my prejudices, were based on Australian sportsmen and women, and Australian films. My psyche was shaped by Australian stereotypes, or to put it a bit more heroically, archetypes, whether it was Dennis Lillee, Shane Warne, Margaret Court, John Eales or Crocodile Dundee and the dingoes of Uluru. As a naturally gifted coward and introvert, and an over-sensitive ‘poet’, I felt Australia to be extremely daunting. And the size of it too — I suppose Australians become accustomed to thousands of miles of outback, of living on a continent. But the whole population of Ireland is less than that of Sydney and you can more or less drive the whole length of the country in a day. I wondered whether I’d curl up in a foetal position and not leave the house I was staying in.
Kevin: Do you think you were a good choice as a poet to visit Australia in this capacity?
James: I’m not sure how one can evaluate whether someone is a good choice or not. There are two processes at work: the effect the visiting poet has on the host community, and vice versa: the effect the community has on the poet. I can’t speak for the first, but I can say that I myself was profoundly affected by my stay. I dare say that any other chosen Vincent Buckley prize winner would have got as much, or more, out of it: it’s hard to quantify. It would, I imagine, be quite possible for a visiting poet to not set foot outside the door of her or his accommodation for a month, then go home, and ten years later write an epic about Ned Kelly.
Kevin: What did you discover about Australia, Australian poetry, Australian people?
James: I can’t remember meeting so many different people of various shapes and sizes, ages, genders, backgrounds et cetera, in such a short space of time. From students (school kids and graduates), painters and film producers, to psychotherapists and medieval Byzantists. More varied than the animals I encountered at the Healesville sanctuary.12 I think that’s what affected me most — the people. In terms of location, I really only saw Melbourne and Sydney, but I think urban Australia has as much a place in the experience of ‘Australia’ as rural Australia — though I’d love to experience the latter too. There is of course the usual cultural dislocation – having a possum crash down on my roof as an early-morning alarm call was truly surreal for me, and seeing the Southern Cross constellation had deep mythic value too (some time ago I included the Southern Cross in a poem and wondered at the time whether I’d ever see it).
For me, the journey to Australia was a huge thing — I’m not a natural traveler; almost everything scares me or makes me anxious — and I was conscious of embracing the spirit of Cavafy’s poem ‘Ithaca’,13 with its injunction about the scary Laistrygonians and Cyclopes et cetera: you won’t meet them unless you bring them with you. For Laistrygonians and Cyclopes read redbacks and cane toads and the like.
As for the poetry — I came across a cross-section of poetry, from modernist to more traditional practitioners — and it was fascinating trying to discern an ‘Australian’ ethos to the different examples. In Ireland, for instance, there is what’s referred to as an ‘Irish poem’, which might feature references to emigration, the Famine, rural isolation, bachelor farmers, the Catholic church, the Magdalen laundries, the precariousness of the Irish language. Almost all Irish poets have at some point written an Irish poem or, alternatively, they have reacted against it, and in doing so acknowledged its magnetic field. I’m still wondering whether there are ‘Australian’ tropes and what they are — apart from more narrowly-focused interests and issues, such as immigration or Indigenous rights.
Kevin: Has the time in Australia had any influence on your thoughts about poetry or your approach to writing poetry?
James: Yes; for example, in a purely practical and satisfying way, I found that by reading the haiku of the poets Grant Caldwell and Myron Lysenko, and by going to your own fantastic lecture on haiku at Melbourne university — I felt the urge to have a go at a form that I’d only flirted with before. I’d always been a fan of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North14 and my journey to Australia felt like an analogous experience to his, in terms of strange encounters, moments of humour and humanity, and the mixture of characters encountered. In addition, I became increasingly interested in a theme that had been bothering me before my visit to Australia — the origins of poetry. What, in essence, did the people of Lascaux do in the way of poetry, if anything: did they indulge in a language or form of language that might be considered to be ‘poetic’? If they didn’t, when did the idea of ‘poetry’, as we understand it emerge? These thoughts naturally led me to investigate the so-called ‘songline’15 tradition of the Indigenous Australians and I was able to read and talk to people about it — it felt like an important step for me in my understanding of the fons et origo of poetry.
Kevin: What would you like to do, or where would you like to go in Australia that you didn’t get a chance to on your brief stay?
James: I suppose there were two places, or two sorts of places, I’d liked to have seen. The first was the outback and the coastline and some sacred places of the Indigenous peoples. The other was places associated with the poet Charles Harpur, often called the ‘Father of Australian poetry’, who may be a distant relation of mine. There are so few Harpurs spelled with a ‘ur’ in Ireland,16 and even fewer who are Protestants, that the chances of my family and Charles’ being connected are extremely high. In any case, my initial familial investigations into Charles soon led me to realise I had a deep poetic kinship with his themes and poetic values (for example nature and Romanticism and non-institutional spirituality). I got the shock of my life when, having translated four lines of Homer about the process of human existence being like the fall and renewal of leaves on trees, I came across Charles’ translation of exactly the same lines. This is a long way of saying I’d love to go to Jerry’s Plains, Singleton, and the Hunter Valley, where Charles lived for a good while; and also Eurobodalla, where he died, on his isolated farm, from tuberculosis in 1868.
Kevin: Were you spiritually starved in Australia?
James: The short answer is no, because I take my ‘spirituality’ — which is quite a multilayered word — with me. I find the ways in which people relate to spirituality, or not, fascinating. For me it’s the fundamental orientation of a person’s life. I myself am a proactive agnostic, curious about people’s ideas of the afterlife, or their faith in a supranormal being or energy, or their rejection of it.
But there is a different answer — and I suspect behind your question there is another question along the lines of, ‘Did you find Australia to be a place where atheistic humanism has replaced conventional, mainstream church-going and do you regret it?’ I never regret the lack of church-going, but I do regret any lack of intellectual or emotional curiosity about the ‘divine element’ of human life. Most poets I know in Ireland who claim to be atheists have been affected by the depredations of Church schools or spirit-numbing church services or various scandals or bigotries between sects. But that has nothing to do with spirituality. And it seems to me that Imagination, the font of all poetic activity, must exclude no possibility from its remit, including the possibility of a divine being, or energy, or state of being. To be a poet and say, ‘Well, I can imagine everything, that’s my job — except of course the possibility of a divine being’, feels awkward to me. Following the likes of Jung, I would say that everyone has a religious instinct at some level — it’s a question of what you do with it.
1. ‘As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug’s game. No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing’ (TS Eliot 1964  p.154).
2. This is reported in Christopher Barnes’ Boris Pasternak: A Literary Biography. He records that Pasternak wrote this in a letter to NA Tabidze, 30 September 1953, and again the following day in a letter to DN and VP Zhuravlev.
3. See in James Harpur, The Dark Age (2007).
4. James Harpur, Angels and Harvesters (2012).
5. John Clare (1793–1864), the Northamptonshire nature poet, was incarcerated in ‘Dr Allen’s private lunatic asylum’ in Epping when he wrote the poem ‘Sighing for retirement’ which includes the lines ‘I found the poems in the fields / And only wrote them down’: lines arguably most often cited in works published on his life and writing. See Eric Robinson et al. (eds), The Later Poems of John Clare; see also Frederick Martin, The Life of John.
6. Blake famously attended school only briefly — his mother educated him at home — but by the age of ten was enrolled in a drawing school and began his visual education.
7. Glyn Hughes (1935–2011) published eight volumes of poetry as well as novels and radio plays. See http://www.glynhughes.co.uk/
8. IA Richards (1893–1979) was an English educator whose work, including Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929), were foundational for the development of the New Criticism.
9. Radar, Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow. See a review of this paired volume by Lucy Alexander in Verity La, 19 February 2013, http://verityla.com/an-incredible-sense-of-trust-nathan-curnow-and-kevin-brophys-radar/
10. In James Harpur, The Dark Age (2007).
11. This is from ‘The Speech of Aristophanes’, which Plato records in his Symposium. Aristophanes tells the assembly that Zeus cut the original humans in two, ‘the way people cut sorb-apples … or the way they cut eggs’, to reduce their power and increase their number. The newly halved humans, longing for their lost other, would wrap themselves around each other and try to reconnect ‘to heal the wound of human nature’.
12. Healesville Sanctuary, in the Yarra Valley, Victoria, allows visitors to see native Australian wildlife in a natural environment.
13. ‘The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopses, / the fierce Poseidon you’ll not encounter, / unless you carry them along within your soul, / unless your soul raises them before you’. CP Cavafy, ‘Ithaca’ (2007).
14. Perhaps the most famous verse travelogue, Matsuo Basho’s haibun (haiku+prose) collection records his 156 days of walking through north-east Japan, in 1689. Oku no Hosomichi or The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is a major work in the Japanese canon.
15. ‘Songlines’ is an English rendering of the ancient Aboriginal Australian practice of knowing, caring for and travelling across the land. Effectively a memory code, it is a way of mapping the land through ancient and contemporary stories, and preserving knowledge about culture, law, the environment, and traditions. See Elizabeth Tregenza (ed) Tjukurpa Pulkatjara: The Power of the Law (2010).
16. The form of the name is originally Norman, the Harpurs being actual harpists who arrived in Ireland after the Norman invasion in 1169 with Richard ‘Strongbow’ de Clare.
Barnes, C 1998 Boris Pasternak: A literary biography, Vol 2 (1928–1960), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Brophy, K and N Curnow 2012 Radar, Hobart: Walleah Press
Cavafy, CP 2007 ‘Ithaca’, in The collected poems (trans Evangelos Sachperoglou), Oxford: Oxford University Press
Eliot, TS 1964  The use of poetry and use of criticism: Studies in the relation of criticism to poetry in England, London: Faber&Faber
Harpur, J 2007 The dark age, Manchester: Carcanet
Harpur, J 2012 Angels and harvesters, Manchester: Carcanet
Martin, F 1865 The life of John Clare, London: Macmillan
Plato 1970 [c. 385–370 BCE] The symposium (trans Suzy Groden), Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press
Richards IA 2001  Principles of literary criticism, Milton Park: Routledge
Richards IA 2001  Practical criticism: A study of literary judgment, Milton Park: Routledge
Robinson, E, D Powell and M Grainger M (eds) 1984 The later poems of John Clare, vol I, Oxford: Clarendon Press
Tregenza, E (ed) 2010 Tjukurpa Pulkatjara: The power of the law, Kent Town: Wakefield Press