No 10 - 1991
In Conversation With David Morley
Charles Tomlinson was born in Stoke on Trent in 1927. He was educated at Longton High School and Queen’s College, Cambridge. He has published much poetry, and is internationally well-known as a translator and editor. He is a painter, and has written several volumes of artistic criticism.
He has travelled widely in Europe, America, Mexico, and, more recently, in Japan and Israel. His early poetry received greatest attention and prior publication in the USA.
He is married with two daughters, and is Professor of English Literature at Bristol University, an honorary Fellow of Queen’s College, Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
This article grew out of a conversation which took place in January 1991 at Tomlinson’s home in Ozleworth, a valley near Wotton under Edge, and which was continued by post during that April.
‘After reading Charles Tomlinson’s copious and challenging Collected Poems, I am more than ever convinced that he is one of our best poets.’ - Michael Schmidt
DM: What was your first ever contact with poetry?
CT: My first ever contact with poetry was Thomas Hood’s ‘Song of the Shirt’ - a socially conscious poem about poor seamstresses. My grandmother, good Liberal that she was, remembered every word of this, and she recited it to me. ‘Recited’! There’s a word you don’t hear much of these days. People once learnt whole poems to ‘deliver’ on the right occasion. She also knew Cowper’s ‘John Gilpin’. She knew more poems and bits of poems than students coming up to university these days. Then from my mother, a completely uneducated woman, I got Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, and my father knew bits and pieces of Kipling and Robert Service, a Canadian poet who once had a great popular following with poems like ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’, which begins ‘A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamite saloon …’ All these poems had a decidedly pronounced rhythm and I suspect that Service’s anapaests influenced my very first poem, ‘Buried Treasure’, written at twelve years of age and published in the Stoke on Trent City Times! That begins ‘On a tropical isle in the southern sea,/Where the cannibals dance to the drum…’ The other influence there was Treasure Island, along with a children’s version of Robinson Crusoe, both of which were ‘poetry’ to me because they spoke of things far from Stoke.
DM: With hindsight, did Stoke supply the young Tomlinson with material or stimulus for starting to write poetry? When did you start to write, and why?
CT: Stoke supplied the young Tomlinson with easy access to the countryside. So despite the fact that I lived overlooking one of the biggest steelworks in England and Josiah Wedgwood’s once ‘ideal’ and then blackened pottery factory, I could walk out - almost nobody owned cars in the 1930s and 1940s - into lush country to the south or more rugged country to the north. I used also to go fishing with my father most weekends of the season, and the excellent local train services we had then soon delivered you to quiet and air and reflection. You had to keep quiet if you were going to catch anything, and the presence of water meant reflection in both senses - meditation on what you were aiming to catch, and the presence of ‘huge and mighty forms’ as Wordsworth says, both in themselves and mirrored in the water. There was the weather, too, and its varied changes. All that entered into the composition and compositions of the young poet.
The other stimulus was school and the teachers I had. Even before I went to Longton High School, we were taught poetry - teachers didn’t seem frightened by poetry in those days. I even recall the headmaster taking us through scenes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then at high school the real catalyst began - mostly through French. We had a splendid teacher, Cecil Scrimgeour, who, by the sixth form, had us reading the French Romantics - De Vigny, Hugo, Lamartine, De Musset. We read some early Rimbaud (all Rimbaud was ‘early, of course) - poems like ‘Le Dormeur du Val’, and quite a bit of Verlaine. So that I committed to memory then - and still have, fifty years later more or less, as part of my portable library - ‘Les sanglots longs des violons’ and ‘Le ciel est par-dessus le toit…’ We read his ‘Art Poetique’, so I knew what ‘the symbolist aesthetic’ was before I won my scholarship to Cambridge - where I had teaching much inferior to that of Cecil Scrimgeour. Add to all this that we were studying Racine - Berenice and Phedre - and Corneille’s Polyeucte, and you can see what it was possible to get into a working class head before personal stereos marooned kids in their rock jungle. At Cambridge they wanted me to do modern languages, but I stuck to English. So Stoke, and the schooling I was able to get there, set me on the right track, with a feeling for place and a feeling for poetry.
DM: There’s the usual journalistic talk of new schools of poetry emerging in the UK (just in time for the millenium). Are young poets merely swapping their predecessors insularity for a new insularity? And how did you respond to the hyping of The Movement when you were beginning to make your mark?
CT: I can perhaps answer the first half of your question by addressing myself to the second. I responded to The Movement by writing for Essays in Criticism a review of Robert Conquest’s New Lines Anthology called ‘The Middle-brow Muse’. It was precisely the hype that got me: poetry was supposed to be on its way back to the common man; foreign cities and the myth-kitty, according to Amis and Larkin, were supposed to be out. There was a stale ‘little England’ism in the air that seemed to negate all I had learnt to love since adolescence. Despite Larkin’s technical virtuosity and his clear talent, I still think the staleness is there and very flattering to people who actually prefer straitened horizons. There’s a terribly middle-class self-satisfaction, for all their much advertised ‘humanity’, about the poems. Of course, I haven’t read all the young poets you speak of, but in the case of your own work and that of, say, James Lasdun, there’s no downgrading of the poetic tradition. As a scientist, you personally have a whole fund of information and fresh experience to feed on that are light-years away from the middle-brow muse. You can be Ovidian by studying trees and fish and quite unselfconsciously incorporating Darwin and what has happened since.
DM: How does it affect your ‘sense of place’ to be not so much a British as an international poet? Do you dislike labels such as these?
CT: Yes, I dislike labels. A passion for languages which began at school - we did Latin, French and also German, and to these I later added Italian and Spanish - simply led me to discover other cultures and other poetic possibilities. I was really only perpetuating something that has gone on for a long time. After all, it was the challenge of foreign poetries - and the possibilities found in translating them - put on their metal Chaucer, Wyatt, Marlowe, Jonson, Dryden, Pope, Pound. When I came to edit The Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation, I realised more and more that English poetry and translation into English had traditionally been part and parcel of a single activity. Some of our greatest poets had been great translators. They had learnt new techniques from abroad and, of course, immensely deepened their sense of mythology and subject matter. So when you speak of my being not so much a British as an international poet, I want to reverse the label, and say that, like my great predecessors, I found myself as a British poet because I could bring other ways of ‘doing it’ to bear on that task. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. Pope and Dryden would have been very different writers without having translated Homer and Ovid and Virgil. It seems to me that one’s ‘sense of place’, as you say, is made more fruitful by being aware of the bigger place in which literature moves, one’s local flavour having, in some sense, to measure up to the scope of all that, both technically and in terms of an adequate subject matter.
DM: It’s unfortunate, but there are various stereotypes surrounding both your work and person (as there are for somebody like Geoffrey Hill). What do you think about the charge of coldness or lack of compassion? And why do you think critics indulge in this sort of gamesmanship?
CT: Why I am ‘cold’ and Larkin is apparently ‘warm’ puzzles me. The cold idea was put into circulation by early reviewers whose own feelings were cold and numb towards the kind of things that interested me - our relation to the non-human world, for example, which surrounds us and has shaped us. But my feelings are born of excitement. I want to tell people. If people read my Midlands poems - ‘The Way In’ for example - or those on the deaths of my mother (‘Under the Moon’s Reign’) and Miriam (‘To Miriam’), or my daughters, my cat, they would surely find me as warm as most people. I think my ‘Charlotte Corday’ is a warm poem as is ‘The Return’, occasioned by the death of Graziella Bertolani, wife of a leading Italian poet. Where people say ‘cold’, they mean they themselves are not responding on all the wavelengths of feeling and language, and then blame me for their frigidity. But I do think there is a bracing, unsentimental vision in the poems that still comes as a shock to some people, like a cool drench of rain. I love coolness as well as warmth. Both contain human possibilities.
DM: Would you ally yourself more with Donne and Herbert? For instance, is there such a thing as passionate intelligence? Can ideas be both metaphysical and warm?
CT: Yes, surely a passionate intelligence can be both metaphysical and warm, though I must say I find over-use of the word ‘warm’ a bit sloppy - like the self-congratulatory ‘caring’ which seems now to have displaced the dignity of ‘kind’. I love the playfulness in Donne and the beautiful conversational run in Herbert, often combined with great metrical and stanzaic dexterity. If ‘warm’ means merely feeling and that that’s what poetry’s supposed to offer, readers will miss the whole impingement of a passionate mind as it engages with the world of thought and perception. We think as well as feel, and in poetry both activities come together. Pope is a supreme example of this in a poem like ‘Eloisa to Abelard’, the Apollonian couplet, as one writer puts it, containing the Dionysian overflow of the situation of the poem - great excitement along with great control. But it’s only recently, I find, that my students have got over the Victorian prejudice that poetry is composed ‘in the soul’, and have come to admit you can feel in as tight a form as couplets. Only yesterday, it seems, Pope and Dryden were being called ‘cold’. So that’s good company to be in.
DM: One other aspect of the Tomlinson stereotype is that your work lacks humour. Clearly such critics must skip your funny poems (‘Arroyo Hondo’, ‘The Death of Will’, ‘A Night at the Opera’, etc.). How important is humour to you as a person and poet?
CT: Well, humour’s always just around the corner. I think of there being in my poems what I attributed to Donne just now - play. In poems where humour of the side-splitting kind may not be in evidence, there are the dance of mind that is humour’s best friend, and puns and syntactic invention that give you the feel of language as being something humanly malleable, always breaking out of the déja vu. Which is what humour often does. Two of my heroes are Keaton and Chaplin, where again the image of the dance comes to mind, when you think of their timing and the sheer beauty of their movements.
DM: A prose work, such as Some Americans, was very well-received. Why not write something else along these lines?
CT: The brief answer is lack of time: full teaching and administration, writing and a lot of painting have left me short of it. I also write a good deal of criticism, as in my other prose book Poetry and Metamorphosis and in frequent reviews. So give me time and I may do another - or a different - Some Americans. I shall be retiring soon …
DM: You must have been very pleased by the award of the Nobel prize to Octavio Paz. With Michael Schmidt, you’ve been responsible for bringing Paz to a British readership by many means, including translation. You also wrote a book together (Airborn/Hijos Del Aire: Anvil 1981). How did you meet, and has your friendship influenced the way in which either of you write?
CT: We met by accident, believe it or not, on Rome airport. The American poet, George Open, had once said what a striking woman Marie Jose Paz was. I was on Rome airport, in 1967, travelling to read at Spoleto, and suddenly I saw this very striking woman and intuition said: That must be Marie Jose Paz! So I followed her on the supposition she was looking for her husband whose picture I had seen. And this was so! He was changing money at a counter and when he turned round I introduced myself - I had already translated some of his poems and he had written enthusiastically to me about the translations. So we all - my wife Brenda was with me - travelled to Spoleto together by train. There ensued years of correspondence and many meetings. These again sometimes occur accidentally - this has happened twice in New York, where I only heard of the Paz’s presence by chance.
I think the influence has been more one of attitude of mind than stylistic. Octavio sets you in the mood for writing because he seems to be alive with creative electricity. The range of his conversation links up many fields - political, ethnographic, the world of painting. He wrote an introduction to my book of graphics, In Black and White, and he was one of the first to encourage my visual art. In his book of reflections on contemporary history, One Earth, (Carcanet) he uses my poem ‘Assassin’ (on the death of Trotsky) as a vision of ‘the fatal trap into which the fanatic who believes he possesses the secret of history inevitably falls’. In turn, I persuaded him to read Wordsworth’s Prelude, one fruit of which was a long poem about his own life. His writings on art led me to seek out the paintings of the great nineteenth century Mexican landscapist Jose Maria Velasco, and ultimately to write a long essay about Velasco, which appeared in the catalogue of the bumper show that was put on in Mexico City last year to celebrate Paz’s birthday. Paz is just extraordinarily stimulating company, a great talker, but a great listener. I’ve known other great and fascinating talkers - the American Robert Duncan is one who comes to mind - who never paused to draw breath. Paz’s prose writings have a kind of French elegance at their best, particularly his studies of individual poets.
DM: Your love of music keeps resurfacing on almost every page of your Collected Poems. And both your daughters are professional musicians. Were you ever attracted to musical composition? And would you ally yourself with a poet like Basil Bunting, and say that syntax should enact the melody of the poet?
CT: It’s interesting that your mention of music anticipates something I was going to say: seeing is believing, but hearing is also believing! A poem whose ‘music’ is defective, whose rhythms are null, is a creative failure. For me poems begin with something seen, but then they declare themselves through a medium that has to be heard - either by the mind’s ear or by that and the physical ear in the act of reading aloud. I’ve just recorded all - yes, all! - of my published books for Keele University Tapes, and in doing those readings the chief concern was always for the voice to keep the verbal music alive. That flowing forward of syntax, the chiming of rhyme, the stops, the reprises, all parallel the effects of music! I awoke to music as I awoke to poetry: there were cheap tickets for schoolchildren to go and hear the Halle Orchestra under Barbirolli, the Liverpool Philharmonic under Beecham and Sargent, at Hanley’s Victoria Hall. I heard Kathleen Ferrier there. For me syntax in poetry, moving in time, is like articulation and harmonic progression in music.
Donald Davie, one of my oldest friends and my tutor in my final year at Cambridge, wrote a book on syntax in the ‘50s called Articulate Energy. He writes there: ‘Poetic syntax is dramatic when its function is to please us by the fidelity with which it follows the “form of thought” in some mind other than the poet’s, which the poet imagines’. I would add to that ‘or his own’, though strictly speaking the ‘I’ of a poem is a dramatic fiction dreamed up for the sake of that poem. The bit I like in the Davie is the idea of the ‘form of thought’ being absolutely central, being drawn out by the movement of syntax. One enlists one’s ‘form of thought’ by a fidelity to the form of language, its hidden power always allowing itself to be coaxed forth and empowering one’s fictions. English, with its marvellous strengths, is always there, waiting to be used, beyond the burble and cliche of the media. The ‘form of thought’ it offers moves like music: we hear that music as one of the many elements in a poem’s succession, while words measure out their shapes through metre and stanza schemes, chiming their way past rhymes, hurrying over the line-endings of blank verse, or sometimes pausing at those line-endings or within the line itself. Yes, I agree with Bunting who exemplifies all this in Briggflatts. But, no, I’d never try musical composition, have never been tempted towards it. I just continue to envy the composer and do otherwise - compose with words, that is. And whistle.
DM: I hear that film was a key influence on your poetry. Which films are important to you? And how has the cinema influenced your handling of poetic imagery?
CT: The comic cinema has meant a lot to me, the rapid pace of those early silent films. I’ve already explained in an interview in PN Review (Autumn 1987) how Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane made me aware of a whole range of cinematic possibilities, of the way angles of perception process, so to speak, what you are looking at. Cinema, from that point of view, very much helped to sharpen my critical faculties as did an activity that went hand in hand with my interest in it - namely, drawing and painting. My paintings, like my poems, begin with the sheer otherness of things - rocks and stones and trees in both are ‘resistances’ that lure you out of your comfortable subjectivity and bring you into relationship with the processes and presences of the world. Hence my first full scale book was called Seeing is Believing.
DM: One last question. You’re still a young sixty four. What are your plans at present? Any good projects on the boil?
CT: I’ve just completed a new volume of poetry, The Door in the Wall, due from OUP next year, so already I’m thinking of the one after that! My immediate plan is to complete the Selected Poems of the 80 year old Italian, Attilio Bertolucci, which I’ve been translating for several years. (He’s the father of the film director, as one inanely has to say to people who know only the media names.) He’s an extraordinary poet - the poems read as if you had combined Proust and Thomas Hardy, but in a very domestic setting, though a setting which has felt the impact of the fascist ‘30s, then the war-torn ‘40s and flight to the mountains when the Germans took over in Italy. And they contain a retrospect of a different Italy from now - one rooted in the provinces, principally Parma, with its influences from France in both architecture and cuisine, and a kind of local sweetness of temperament that shows in the great frescoes of Correggio there. Bertolucci has been writing what he calls a novel in verse, La camera da letto, which sums up the life of his family and ancestors and in a syntax that would have delighted Bunting - and maybe Proust himself.
The other part of my plan is to do more art criticism. I’ve written a couple of essays on Cezanne for the late Peter Fuller’s magazine Modern Painters, also one on John Ashbery as art critic. At the moment I am engaged on a piece which should appeal perhaps to the readers of The North and this is on Canadian painting in the first half of the century. It begins with the fact that two of Canada’s finest painters, Arthur Lismer and FH Varley, emigrated from Sheffield. One of the arresting things about their rocks and stones and trees - and about Varley’s mountains - is just how much they seem to have owed to the drawings in the Ruskin museum at Sheffield, studied in their student days. So it was Ruskin - another of my influences, incidentally - and not the unmediated Canadian wilds that made their work so compellingly accurate. There again are two Britishers who ventured outside the right little, tight little island and became, virtually unknown to the island, two of the century’s most daring landscape painters. So perhaps Ruskin and his Modern Painters makes a good place for us to call a halt. He carried forth much that is best in English Romanticism. He influenced our two Sheffielders, and he also influenced Gerard Manley Hopkins in the latter’s passion for ‘inscape’ - what Ruskin called ‘the peculiar and separating form’ of things. And lastly he influenced your interviewee - as did Hopkins too - with his stress on the ‘leading lines’ of what we see. If as a poet you see clearly, as Ruskin thought you should, you can translate his ‘leading lines’ into those of syntax, ‘articulate energy’ as Davie so brilliantly puts it. So, to sum up, I’m not ‘cold’ but energetic, I’m not humourless but endlessly playful (even where I’m being serious) and my poems are for me full of the future - as I hope they will prove for the younger generation - because they are based on an awareness of ecology, a balance to be achieved with nature, which is one of the things that might save us from the political catastrophes of this century.
Poetry and criticism:
New Collected Poems(1991)
The Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation
The Door in the Wall (Oxford University Press, 1992)
Eros Englished (in preparation)
Some Americans (1981)
Poetry and Metamorphosis (1983)
Art and criticism:
In Black and White (1975)
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The