The difficulty of life, according to Kierkegaard (and I know there may be more pressing difficulties), is that while we can only understand it backwards, we have to live it forwards. I feel something like this about my poems. The last time I was asked to write about them was a few years ago now, but what I said then still seems pertinent – or even more so. Which was, that in most of my work up to that point I had been moving between, or trying to bring together, two different strands, two different musics, from the poetry I loved. One was the dandyishness of Donne, of early Eliot and the late-nineteenth-century French poets who stood behind him, Laforgue, Corbière, Gautier; poets who dramatized passionate feeling with scrupulous irony. The other was the very English understatement, direct and (apparently) plain-speaking, I heard in the poems of Hardy and Larkin. At some point I had begun more consciously to separate out these strands in myself, to see what if anything I could bring to and draw from each.
The original poems I wrote thereafter were published in a collection, Revenants, and the chapbooks either side of it: The Lost World, Five Poems and Paper-Money Lyrics. The ‘Home Life’ sonnets published here belong pretty unambiguously to this vein. I use the term ‘sonnets’ loosely. Poems of fourteen lines, irregularly-rhymed, just-about metrical, have been cropping up in all my collections since the first. There are precedents. In the 1960s and ’70s, in Notebook and its various re-workings, Robert Lowell published hundreds of ‘fourteen-line unrhymed blank verse sections’, as he described them. About the same time, Gavin Ewart wrote his ‘So-Called Sonnets’. Paul Muldoon has been producing wildly inventive variations – or assaults – on the basic requirements throughout his writing life. Both the perfect self-containment of the single sonnet (as in famous examples from Thomas Wyatt to Philip Larkin to Carol Ann Duffy) and the narrative possibilities of the sonnet-sequence appeal to me. I’ve written many one-offs, and a handful of mini-sequences – such as this one (seven poems, an approximate ‘corona’), ‘The Lost World’ itself and the ancient ‘Ancient History’ – about, more or less, my family, my un-idyllic suburban boyhood, their pleasures and pains; and I’m working towards some kind of coherent shape for them. Hence ‘from Home Life’. . .
In the other vein I began translating some of the French poems that had haunted me for years, or rather, in quite a few cases, going back to work on translations I had started years before. Some of these appeared in Drunken Boats and Marine (a collaboration with John Kinsella); while my versions from Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Laforgue, Corbière and others (including the two pieces here) are included in a new volume, White Nights, published this month by Sheep Meadow Press in the US. As I say in my Note to that book, ‘This isn’t the place to rehearse, or devise, a theory of translation; instead I ask the reader to imagine a spectrum that runs from extreme fidelity at one end, via the liberties associated with “imitation”, to “homage” at the other. My versions encompass (though not usually within the same poem) most kinds of fidelity and liberty, the rubrics After and Long after indicating where on the spectrum a given version sits; the latter one has an ambiguity that is intended.’
Where to now? For a couple of years I’ve been revisiting old preoccupations and re-examining the evidence, wondering what to make of it, in all senses – since we don’t choose our subjects, they choose us. (Or mine choose me anyway – or chose me, a long time ago.) There is absolutely nothing in human life or any other kind of life that can’t be a subject for poetry, though. I’ve been called a confessional poet, which I certainly did not set out to be, but inasmuch as poems, for me, have to come out of something ‘personal’, or my own experience – though this could be, of someone else’s poetry (see above), or something that has happened to someone who isn’t me – it will serve to suggest what I try to do. The hope is that the personal, in a poem, will take on a significance for someone else, speak to something in them, and to that end the poem has to stand up – to have an existence that is separate from me and whatever needs of mine were answered by making it. So it has to have a shape, a music, and can’t be just a cry of joy or a howl of dismay. Therein, to adapt Henry James, our passion, our task, the madness of art.