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In this podcast, Dr Paul Monk and Nick Fabbri discuss the nature of poetry, the origins of music and language, and how to live life with meaning and authenticity.
Dr Paul Monk is a poet, polymath and highly regarded Australian public intellectual. He has written an extraordinary range of books, from Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty (which resides in former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s library), to reflective essays on the riches of Western civilization in The West in a Nutshell, to a prescient 2005 treatise on the rise of China in Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China.
Interview with Dr Paul Monk
Saturday 3 August, 2019
Paul Monk on Poetry and Living with Meaning and Authenticity
[Chopin Nocturne in B Flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1]
LXXX: Listening to Chopin
The combination of protracted convalescence,
Bouts of exhaustion halting all my projects,
Melancholy news of Venezuela
And wintry thoughts of my relentless aging;
Have me, lately, turning down the lights
And listening intently to some Chopin -
Chiefly to his nocturnes, late at nights -
And feeling deeply privileged, overall,
To be myself, disposed oneirically,
Equipped with such advanced technology;
To have the scope, in quiet, private space,
The means, the education and good grace,
The access to such high fidelity
Recordings, by the Warsaw Philharmonic;
But, not least, our love, my bold, creative muse,
My own George Sand, with her cigars and trousers –
At least if we see them as metonyms –
Whose novels outsold those of Victor Hugo;
Who’s been with me to lakes up in the mountains
And taken her composer to Mallorca.
Yet Chopin never wrote a book on China,
Or a book of thirty essays on the West;
Or a book of sonnets, set in B Flat minor;
Or political opinions in the press.
There’s much, in short, that Frederic didn’t do,
Even with Amanthe Lucile Dupin,
That I’ve done, in my fleeting years with you
And, having cheated death, perhaps still can.
But when I’m gone, if your lone psyche yearns
For all we were, read these – my own nocturnes.
01:50 Nick: That was the opening bars of Frederick Chopin's Nocturne in B Flat minor, Op. 9 No. 1, and Paul Monk reciting his recent poem Listening to Chopin.
01:58 You're joining us on Bloom, a podcast about anything and everything, featuring conversations with people who have led meaningful, interesting and flourishing lives in order to better understand ourselves, each other and the world around us.
02:11 My name is Nick and today I'm talking with Paul Monk: poet, essayist, scholar of history and international relations and former senior intelligence analyst of at the Defence Intelligence Organisation, and author of ten books.
02:23 Now, Paul, today I'd like to talk with you about why you write poetry, how you write it and why anyone reads poetry at all. Can we perhaps begin by having you explain what lead you to write the poem you just recited?
02:34 Paul: Yes, I had been convalescent for some time after a prolonged battle with metastatic cancer. So, I still get quite a bit of fatigue and for three nights in a row prior to writing this poem, I was feeling particularly tired. So, at nights I would put on those Chopin Nocturnes and turn out the lights and lie back in a recliner and just listen to the music to relax before retiring for the night.
03:00 On the third night, it occurred to me that to be able to do this at all was a privileged thing. It was a beautiful thing. It was expressive of my whole way of being and the way my life has worked out, and because I'd been writing quite a bit of poetry, that thought suggested itself to me as a poem.
03:21 So, I thought - because I often do this - okay, I'll take that thought with me to bed. I'll sleep on it and in the morning, the poem will arise, which indeed it did. The beauty of it is that I began, as the listeners will have noted, by simply describing what had happened that night in the opening stanza. Then, the poem began to unfold and I had the idea of my muse, my wife - my partner in life - being like Chopin's muse, George Sand.
03:51 So, I drew metaphors from their relationship and having done that, the third stanza occurred to me because I thought, you know, I've done quite a few things too and Chopin didn't do those things. So, the poem emerged like that. It wasn't mechanically produced and it was only right at the end that I realised as I say in the final couple of lines, that actually these poems, including this one, are my own Nocturnes. So, I think it turned out - you might say 'nocturned out' rather nicely.
04:20 Nick: Ha, ha. So, you've written quite a bit of poetry over the years and the last several last decades actually. Could you sort of talk us through what got you started and what that process was like?
04:29 Paul: Yes, and the shortest possible answer is that it was a very prolonged process. I, when I was very young, wanted to live you might say a poetic life. I had encountered little bits of poetry. In my personal case, the richest encounter was the poems in the Lord of the Rings but there were other things that influenced me to imagine what it would be like to have a life that was actually suffused with poetry, and that included very coloured pictures in children's books which I had when I was a small child or other stories, adventure stories that I'd read, or history books which were about the big, wide world.
05:11 But it took me a long time before I wrote any poetry that I felt was actually quite good and it took me decades before I had the confidence to write poems about almost anything that occurred to me as meaningful or moving which is what I'm able to do now.
05:28 I think part of the problem was that nobody around me when I was young wrote poetry. Very few people read poetry and certainly nobody at school, no English teacher at school ever said, "How do you write poetry? Let's write poetry."
05:44 I think some people are introduced to it at school. I was not. So, I was really on my own and I felt eccentric for a number of years because I thought I want to write poems and I like poems but they seem like they're from another culture, another time and place, they're just in old books and it's an odd thing to do. So, it's taken quite a while...
06:03 Nick: They're quite a structured disciplined thing as well, to do it well.
06:05 Paul: It is. It's a skill, like any other. I mean, we refer to Chopin in that first poem there and how did Chopin become a great pianist? Well, by a lot of practice, and he lived in a culture where people did that kind of thing but it still took a lot of practice. It is said that he was very good at improvising at the piano but he agonised over turning it into a composition. That's the work of creativity and certainly poetry is the same but I've gone from a child who longed to do it, to an adolescent and young adult who fumbled in trying to do it, to a man of mature years who is now increasingly comfortable in doing it and finds it very satisfying.
06:43 I might give us an example, if I may. A poem that was written very recently refers us back to when I was a little boy. I talked about coloured pictures in children’s book and this poem is about coloured pictures in a particular book I was given when I was only about six or seven years old.
07:00 It was a children’s book about the life of Marco Polo, and the images from it and the story that it told made an indelible impression on me as the poem relates. It's simply called Little Marco.
I: Little Marco
The picture books of Lawrence Peach -
John Kenney’s pictures chiefly -
Filled my childish mind with coloured dreams
Of exotic countries and far off times –
Beginning with Marco Polo.
Travelling much, in intervening years,
I’ve marvelled, more than ever, as an elder,
At his images of Caesar and of Alfred;
Of Harry at Agincourt, Nelson at Trafalgar –
But, not least, of little Marco Polo.
The very opening pages show the boy
Crouching nimbly on the Venetian docks,
At the age I was when gaping first at him;
Looking with round-eyed wonder
At Chinese characters on a bale of silk.
‘Little Marco Polo,’ Peach intoned,
‘Whose father was a merchant, often stared
At the queer Chinese or Arabic writing’,
Pondering, as did I, from whence
These bales of wonder had derived.
Niccolo, his father, brought the bales
From the rim of the Euxine Sea,
Which Jason crossed, in fables, long ago;
But they’d come from farther, Peach related:
On the longest road from the farthest Eastern lands.
The ancient Silk Road led to Xanadu,
To the awesome Mongol courts of Kublai Khan
And there, Peach showed, the youthful Marco went
While I, all eyes, went with him on his journey
And, aye, have done, on all my travels since.
08:29 Nick: Yep. One thing that strikes me about that poem is the sense of wonderment and playfulness of the language and I suppose the child-like perspective. Could you reflect on the differences in your relationship to poetry when you were at the foothills of life to your perspective now, both in terms of the types of poetry you find fascinating and interesting and engaging now and I suppose the different levels of comprehension and understanding you have, having lived over, you know, five decades or so?
08:58 Paul: Yes. The first thought that springs to mind in answer to your question is that of course when you're very young, you're only beginning to master language itself, so you might exclaim joyously, you might have a lot of free emotion but you don't have a sophisticated vocabulary or capacity to express yourself.
09:17 Nick: The language lasso around a thought or feeling...
09:19 Paul: Yeah, you know, and you try and do it but there's a lot of learning to do. When you get to my age now - I'm in my sixties - it's very different if you've pursued education and been working at poetry, where you find and increasingly you have a superfluity of the capacity to express yourself and it becomes a matter of choosing the form of expression - the words you'll use, the rhythms that you'll use, the topics that you'll choose.
09:50 What's interesting in that case is that I was able to give expression to the experience that I had a long time ago which I couldn't have done when I was little but the feeling, the memory had always been there, and it's deepened in terms of meaning precisely because I'm looking back and so much has happened since.
10:07 Nick: Of course, many poets are able to write poetry by reflecting on experiences that they had thirty or forty years ago and infuse it with meaning in the present, but other poets of course write poetry or are inspired by current events and other people as well. Has that experience occurred to you as well?
10:24 Paul: Well, yes it did. Of course, when I was little like most of us, I was a child in a conservative family in a little community and so I had very limited experience of things that I might write poetry about as well as lacking the language and the skill to write poetry at all.
10:41 Having had quite an adventurous life, I've now got a super abundance of topics, but for many poets of course, it's very particular kinds of experience that prompt them to write poetry and famously, one of those experiences is you hit adolescence and you start getting smitten by members of the other sex or let it be said, members of your own, though that wasn't my experience.
11:05 It was certainly true for me that in adolescence - particularly late adolescence and early twenties - I did fall in love with women or girls that I wanted to write love poems but I didn't know how to do that well.
11:17 There were times when I would write a poem and even give it to a girl and get often confused responses which were a combination of, "So, why is he doing this? People don't do that in Australia," or, "It's a bit of a, you know, an awkward poem," you know, it's not a great poem or they might be touched by the fact that one had written a poem...
11:39 Nick: Not sure how to respond.
11:40 Paul: Not sure how to respond, right? So, one of the very - you know, looking back - very rich experiences I've had is gradually getting better at that so that I've now got to a point where the muse of the poems for whom I write my current poems is my wife. She is somebody with whom I have many shared memories and a very close relationship and a creative partnership, and so I don't have the problems I had as a fumbling adolescent, right? It's no longer a matter of adoration from a distance and writing something intense. It's a matter of putting into a form of words things that we've shared, things that we dream about together.
12:18 Nick: That question of audience - who the poem is written for on any creative work - is always quite an important one, isn't it?
12:25 Paul: It is, you know? I mean, a poet in one sense, I think it should be said, writes for themselves. So, you can look at almost any poet and they've had an experience. We'll come shortly to talk about say William Wordsworth and one or two of his poems where he's reflecting on an experience he has had, but other people when they read the poem can relate to that kind of experience and also to the beautiful expression that he gives to that kind of experience. They may even then go to the place where he was when he wrote such a poem in an effort to capture that kind of experience for themselves.
13:00 Nick: So, if we were to distil it into a definition, what is poetry? What is actually going on through this medium, this construction of human language?
13:08 Paul: I think the point of departure has to be that as human beings, we're language animals. Human beings have language and from the time we're born basically, we start learning it. We hear it, we pick it up, we acquire vocabulary, we start burbling away and then constructing phrases and sentences.
13:26 Poetry is an extension of that and it's very ancient in human experience, but another way to describe it and Edmund Muir, the Scottish poet, said this precisely about half a century ago is that poetry, when you stop and think about it, is like a combination of language and music and it used to generally be something that was chanted or sung. When it turns into something on the written page, you can't hear the music but it would normally have a musical pattern, a metrical pattern.
13:57 Nick: Providing it's read aloud, that can come through as well.
13:59 Paul: That's right, but if it's recited - and we still have performance poetry which is the case, where the rhythm of the language and the stanzas is very much part of the experience.
14:11 I think most people would concede that if such a poem or any form of words is put to actual music and performed, the music can really lift it up, you know? If you see a concert - one of my favourite examples of this is a concert that the Rolling Stones performed in Havana a couple of years ago. They start singing classic songs like Gimme Shelter or Brown Sugar and this audience – a huge audience, half a million Cubans - are dancing and singing along. They're ecstatic. Now, that couldn't happen if Mick Jagger stood at a microphone and recited the words. It just wouldn't happen, right? In fact, you might even listen to those words or read them on a page and think well that’s...
14:49 Nick: Quite bland...
14:50 Paul: Yeah, right. So, music is key and I think that when somebody listens to a poem, even if there isn't actual music - if it has musical characteristics, if it has a metrical pattern of an appropriate kind and rhyming language or assonance in it, those elements themselves musically affect the brain.
15:09 So, the answer to your question in short is that poetry is a human proclivity to be very expressive in language and try and communicate musically and meaningfully and not just informationally, and it’s heightened language.
15:25 Nick: Why has it been essential to human evolution? We think about hundreds of thousands of years ago in our development. What was it about music that preceded language and is so deeply rooted in our selves and our sense of connection with others but also the interior connection with ourselves or, dare I say it, a higher being or a higher reality?
15:45 Paul: Yes, that's a profound question. Claude Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist, remarked about sixty years ago, "Music is the supreme mystery of humanity." He was trying to figure out where did music come from because it's so pervasive and so integral to our way of being that we can forget that it is. We breathe like fish swim. We don't think about why do we do that?
16:09 There is an argument. Gary Tomlinson in a very recent book called A Million Years of Music - and he's a theorist of opera - advances this fascinating argument that music as such, that is the sense of rhythm and rhythmic motion, is older than language. So, when it gets us moving, when the crowd in Havana as I mentioned a moment ago start dancing, something quite profound and intrinsic to our humanity is taking place.
16:39 Poetry it seems to me is the interface between that very deep relatedness to rhythm and to the emotions that music can literally tap into and articulate speech. Therefore, if it's done properly, if it's done consciously, it can be really quite profound.
17:00 Nick: Do you have an example where that's done particularly well?
17:03 Paul: Yeah, there's a famous poem of Wordsworth which he wrote when he was still very young in 1798 called Lines Written a few Miles Above Tintern Abbey. He was walking into Wales with his sister, Dorothy, and he'd been there before some years ago, five years before. He was so moved standing, looking down at Tintern Abbey and its surrounds that he wrote this poem almost on the spot.
17:28 Anyway, it's opening lines read as follows:
Five years have passed, five summers with the length
Of five long winters and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain springs
With a sweet inland murmur – Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs
Which on a wild, secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky
17:52 That's Wordsworth more than 200 years ago, and I think if you talk with people who know their poetry, in particular English Romantic poetry, that poem about Tintern Abbey is one of the better-known ones.
18:06 It's evocative, not only of landscape but of the experience of landscape and the sense of nature and of personal being that it evoked for Wordsworth. So, it's a rather nice example of what poetry actually is.
18:23 If we move from Wordsworth specifically to the more general question of what poetry is, I think we could probably say three specific things. The first is that the mode of expression in poetry is meditative. It's rhythmic or as I said, a more or less musical use of language.
18:42 The second is that as we see in that fragment from Wordsworth, there is reflectiveness as distinct from reactiveness, so it's not just as it were an emotional exclamation or shout or something. It's the articulation, the putting into words of something that's otherwise inchoate but moving. In other words, it's an exercise you might say in extracting meaning and not only having sensations or impressions.
19:12 The third is that as we can see in Wordsworth's case because he opens with this very statement, there's a sense of time giving depth of meaning to what is seen and to being in the world.
19:25 One very famous exercise in that which is not normally regarded as poetry but which is highly poetic in the sense that I've been describing it in Marcel Proust's vast novel a hundred years ago In Search of Lost Time. The language he uses is exquisite and again and again, what he's doing is looking back on his childhood or his earlier life and remembering things that occurred and finding all sorts of meanings in it, precisely because he's looking back. It's not that he's recalling all those meanings from that moment. He's able to recall the meanings looking back - a) because he's had so much more experience, and b) because recalling it in the context of time makes it more poignant.
20:11 Nick: Just when we think back to you now writing poetry 40 or 50 years ago since your own childhood and the way that you're able to relive or reexperience those childhood memories which were they not given expression in the fullness of your language and poetic structure would be lost, but is that what's at work here as well? You can actually sort of come to relive and reexperience and feel again things that were lost to time?
20:37 Paul: Very much.
20:37 Nick: In Search of Lost Time and Proust, right?
20:38 Paul: Yes, precisely so. I mean, you're absolutely right. Take that little exercise with Marco Polo. It was a personal experience I had. Nobody but me had that precise experience. If it's not distilled into a form of words that has some structured characteristics, then it just disappears. It's gone.
20:59 Once it's put in that form of words, not only does it capture my experience but it's available to others who could then read that poem as they read say Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey poem and relate to the kind of thing that it's saying as well as being pleased one would like to think by the form in which it's stated.
21:17 Nick: But there are gradations of experience, right? I mean, one might have 80% of the experience of Wordsworth or Paul Monk or Mick Jagger's poetry but there's a sense of fully inhabiting a poem and its import, its meaning, which you can only fully experience having written the poem. Is that also your experience from being a reader to a creator of poetry?
21:39 Paul: There is that sense and certainly if you've written a poem that does capture well and express well an experience you've had, there can be a great deal of satisfaction I have found in going back to it and saying, "Wow, that gives form and structure and endurance to something that was otherwise ephemeral or inchoate."
22:00 But there's an important adjunct to this which is that other people, while they cannot - no matter how well you've written a poem - they cannot recapture your personal experience. What they can do however is first of all get some sense of your personal experience and sometimes it's a very fine expression of it, but above all it sharpens their own perceptions of what a poem is, of what that kind of experience is and they will carry away an interpretation of your poem in the same way that you have carried away the experience of the original incident, right? That's what meaning is all about. It's very subtle and enlivening.
22:38 Nick: Can you give us another example of the interconnectedness of this tradition, of this exchange across centuries and millennia?
22:44 Paul: Yes. There's a poem I wrote called How to Use Our Tongues which is in fact an exploration of the poetic tradition. What have we inherited? How did the capacity to write poetry develop?
22:59 This draws on a passage in Homer's very famous epic, The Odyssey, and ends up suggesting that not only can you appreciate his poem but through reading this particular passage in it, you can use it as a metaphor to understand what poetry as such actually is.
23:19 So, it goes like this:
XVII: How to use our tongues
There is a passage in the Odyssey
In which the beauties of Icmalius’ chair
Are brought before our eyes;
Almost so that we, in wonderment,
Like it’s fabled footrest,
Find ourselves mortised in the frame,
Draped with a heavy fleece
And listening, as Penelope
Instructs her house help, Eurynome,
To seat the guest for story.
Imagine that fine Icmalian craft
And conjure, in your mind, the scene in which
Penelope, in her own voice declares
‘I wish our guest to tell his story whole
And patiently to hear me out, as well,
As I’ll be full of questions, point by point.
I want him, seated in our polished chair,
To tell me of his travels, in good time.
For this stranger, who has come into our halls,
May know somewhat of Odysseus himself.’
All poetry is such an Icmalian chair:
Its music mortised into practiced frames;
Mellifluous rhyme and artful assonance
Cast over it, like Homer’s softened fleece.
Through aeons, both these crafts have been refined,
Since earlier than Gilgamesh or Ur
And they have fitly shaped the conversation,
From Pindar’s odes to Martial’s epigrams,
Of all that we call prosody or verse -
And taught us better how to use our tongues.
24:36 So, notice how in that poem I draw upon the rich tradition of other western poetry and how poetry itself has developed and how it works and how to do so, how to generate it in a poetic manner.
24:50 This is available in principle to us all but gaining access to this skill requires education which is to say being led into it from one or another of the Latin verb's educate, to lead or bring up, rear, raise or bring away. I think this goes to the heart of what we mean by culture or higher education or good education.
25:15 Nick: I'd like to come back to your own formative process in an educational and cultural sense but before we get there, I think it's worth thinking about some modern forms of poetry or post structuralist or perhaps post-modern poetry which struggles to I think satisfy a few of the criteria that you set up for poetry. Could you maybe reflect on the state of modern poetry and I guess how we sort of broaden the definition to include things which seem to be totally unstructured.
25:40 Paul: There's no question that in the 20th century particularly, in most fields of creative endeavour - poetry being only one, it's happened in music, it's happened in plastic and graphic art - there has been a breakage with traditions, with formalism.
25:56 Nick: An entropic sort of deterioration or decline, isn't it?
26:00 Paul: Well, that's the way it seems. I mean, people - others have insisted that it's breaking free and it's immensely creative and it's progressive and so forth. That's a debate one might have all on its own, but one way to put it without being excessively judgemental let's say is to liken what's been done in a lot of 20th century poetry or let's say modern poetry/modernist poetry, to let's say jazz.
26:32 I mean, when the saxophone was invented, when jazz started to be composed for that or other instruments, there were many people whose habituation was to classical music or romantic music who were horrified. They were, "This is not music, this is nonsense. This is anarchic."
26:48 Well, it was anarchic. Whether it was nonsense is another matter and many of us now think that jazz is a very fine mode of music and it's a very playful mode of music. So, it darts all over a melody, it lifts it up and raises it and varies it and so on.
27:02 So, in the best cases, a lot of let's call it post melodic poetry is doing with words, doing with the very idea of metre or meaning, things that are somewhat anarchic.
27:17 Nick: And sometimes it's absent of metre and rhyme and everything.
27:20 Paul: Exactly so, but if it's any good at all, it never the less impinges on our minds, our imaginations with its sharp use of language, with its very angularity, with violating expectations, with very colourful use or even novel uses....
27:40 Nick: Typographical arrangements and things...
27:41 Paul: Yeah, all sorts of things. I haven't myself written for the most part that kind of poetry and I have two feelings about that which are at loggerheads with one another. One is I don't really want to do that. I want to write something that's more intelligible and immediately accessible, and I want - because I do a lot of analytical work, I'm chary about writing stuff that's too hermetic or opaque because I think maybe it's just nonsense, maybe it doesn't mean anything at all. On the other hand...
28:11 Nick: Solipsistic and...
28:13 Paul: Yes, but there's another part of me of course which says well, let's be a bit more broad minded and experiment. Let's try out other things and see whether they work. So, there is in the body of work I'm preparing at the moment quite significant variation in rhyme, metre, rhythm, assonance, stanza length and construction. Not so far at least in what might be regarded as really radical and certainly not completely hermetic forms but certainly very experimental.
28:46 Nick: What springs to my mind is the relationship between form and structure and meaning and whether were you writing in the style of sort of post melodic form or formless poetry writing that's I suppose conventional now, you would be able to achieve the same levels of meaning as you have done so by replicating Shakespearian sonnets or Petrarchan sonnets or experimenting with sort of quite structured rhyme and metre forms from centuries and millennial ago. Even Sapphic Odes and things that I've seen you write as well. So, do you want to reflect on the relationship between form and meaning?
29:24 Paul: Yes. I think the first thing to say is that if you discard those forms of rhyme and metre or rhythm, you can lose the ear of the recipient because they can't follow the soundwaves. They can't absorb just the beauty of the use of language. They have to focus in on the meaning of specific words and they have to grope or search for what's really being said here.
29:53 I confess that in reading a number of 20th century poets, literate though I clearly am and attuned to what poetry is and what it's for, I often struggle to figure out what is this poet trying to communicate. That gives me pause and a friend said to me recently - and he's an intelligent man though he's not a poet but he said to me with regard to a particular poet whose work I had said I had difficulty understanding - he said, "Well, mate, if you can't figure it out, who can?"
30:25 But of course what modern music also did - you know atonal music and so on - is quite deliberately moving in that direction in order to challenge people to think and not just be more passive or conservative. Whether it's achieved that, whether that is a desirable way to go is a debate that's well worth having.
30:45 Nick: One thing I find fascinating about your poetry is it sort of stands outside of that linear progression of poetic forms across human civilisation. So, you know, it's one thing for poets of the 21st century in Melbourne, Australia, to sort of reflect the spirit of their times through the different modes and formal structures they apply or do not apply in their poetry. We can all agree it's kind of similar in the way they're going about it or you think about like Langston Hughes' poetry was very much a product of its time in its sort of shape and rhythm and feel, but yours is sort of somehow really quite interesting in that it sort of stands outside of all that and is sort of playful with different structures and ways of creating meaning which could go back millennia which I find interesting, but I always wondered why yours hasn't sort of, you know, become part of...
31:31 Paul: ... part of the flow. I would say the short answer to that is because I didn't grow up as part of an artistic movement. I didn't publish poems as a young person in journals. I had never been part of a literary clique that wanted to be fashionable. I have only come to poetry as an avocation outside of my analytical and historical work because I wanted to give expression to what I was experiencing. I wasn't trying to meet a fashionable criterion.
32:08 You know, when I wrote the Sonnets for example, I was fully conscious that really nobody writes sonnets anymore in Shakespearian mode, and I write in a preface to my book Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty why therefore did I write sonnets? Well, I wrote them to please myself. I wanted to see what it would be like to write sonnets in the manner that Shakespeare had, albeit with a contemporary vocabulary, and demonstrate to myself as much as anything that I could move around freely in the western cannon in terms of myth and poetic style.
32:37 I did that, and what other people make of it is a secondary consideration. To some extent now, what I'm doing is very much self-expression. It is a much wider range of that expression and of subject matter and I'm finding that a growing number of people are saying, "I really like what you're writing."
32:59 Nick: Yeah, and the primary motivator or inspiration behind your poetry as you mentioned is your wife, Claudia.
33:05 Paul: Yes, she is. This is something that arose over a period of time because she arrived in my life fortuitously 15 years ago and right from the get go, she was fascinated by what I did and the breadth of my reading.
33:24 Unlike any other woman that I had known, many of whom I had written poems for, she said to me, "You are a writer and a poet. That's what you should be. Don't just treat it as a sort of eccentric thing you do on the side or privately. Fulfil yourself, do it."
33:42 This was crystallised one day when I emerged from the office because I was working as a consultant. We met after work and I came out of the office with a suit and tie on and carrying a briefcase and she said to me as if it was with surprise, "You look like a businessman." I said, "Well, I am a businessman," and she said, "No, you’re a writer and a poet."
34:03 What's actually happened in the 10 or 12 years since then, more than that now actually, is that I've gradually come to identify myself as precisely that, as a writer and a poet. I've said to her recently she is the perfect muse because she not only sees in me what I have longed to be and have now in an important sense become, but she has encouraged it, cultivated it, challenged it. We've travelled together. We read things together. We talk about everything and so it's a fantastic partnership in that sense.
34:41 I'd like to share a poem with you that is called The Pact We Formed and it's a pact that I formed with Claudia who I should point out for your listeners - this will surprise a lot of people - lives in Venezuela. She lives on the other side of the world. We haven't cohabited now for more than a decade but we've grown closer, and that's a whole story in itself which you aren't going to hear but as a result of living apart, we've had to work very hard at what keeps us together and we have discovered that there are profound things that keep us together.
35:14 Three years ago, I went and visited her in Venezuela and then flew on from Venezuela to Brazil. When I landed in Rio, I had an experience that took me back six years to when she and I had been in Buenos Aires and this poem gives expression to that, and it means directly even in terms of language with Tintern Abbey, with the Wordsworth poem, because he begins five years ago and I begin this poem six years ago. Not to echo Wordsworth, it just so happens that we're having similar experiences and we're looking back in time as a reference point.
35:48 So, the poem goes as follows:
XXXVIII: The pact we’ve formed
Six years ago, in Kirchner’s Buenos Aires,
You turned to me and said, in a quiet tone,
‘Look carefully at all you see around,
Since this, as cities go, in all the Cone,
Is the finest and the grandest that you’ll see.
It’s all downhill in quality from here.’
But how, in saying such a scathing thing,
Could you have failed to take into account
Great Rio, with its beach and circling hills?
For, once one’s breathed the air of Ipanema
And heard Brazilian music in the streets,
I have to say, one takes a different view.
I drove in from Jobim by private cab
And revelled in the pulsing sense of place.
Confessing to imprisonment in English,
I told my man, in halting Spanish phrases,
That all the world finds Rio fascinating;
As much, in truth, as any city known.
He answered me in swishing Portuguese,
With warmth that showed he’d plainly understood
The root and sense of all I’d tried to say.
He pointed, then, to Corcovado Hill,
Upon which stands the giant, sculptured form
Of Cristo the Redeemer, as he’s called.
But it was not the sculpted, looming Christ
That made me feel redeemed on Rio’s strand.
It was, instead, Atlantic Avenue:
The beauteous sweep of Copacabana Beach;
It’s contrast with the grimness of Caracas –
And the pact we’ve formed for bravely thinking big.
37:09 Nick: It's very beautiful. I think it's rendered with more meaning, having heard the relationship that you and Claudia have had over the last 15 years or so, but when you mentioned that she was the one who said, you know, you were a writer and a poet and the way that actually gave you licence to subsequently go and create and I suppose become who you really are, it did immediately recall in my mind the Greek aphorism of Gnothi Seauton, ‘become who you are.’
37:43 I think it’s quite profound thinking back to the image of Claudia almost sort of uttering an incantation that you are a writer and a poet. It brought this into being and it made me think of the phrase which we have used before about living poetically, living one's life with a sense of heightened meaning and purpose but also sort of with the sense of now looking back on you and Claudia as almost characters in the story you both shared and that that you've independently but now you’re entwined in sort of a poem or a song together. Do you want to sort of reflect on those sentiments?
38:14 Paul: Yes, you've put it very well and in fact, Claudia has a gift for that kind of insight and challenging formulation. There was another occasion in which she said to me many years ago, "Do you realise that we are living a story that has not yet been written?"
38:32 She used to urge me to write stories and she still urges me to write our story and in a sense with the poems I'm doing that, at least in part, but the precise question you're asking is if you're living poetically, how does that occur? What does that mean?
38:51 Nick: But also looking at living as writing, right?
38:54 Paul: Yes, that's - well, if we're language beings and literate beings, there ought to be some kind of strong and positive correlation/relationship between language, writing and being, the way we live, but for many people those things become adrift. So, it's notorious that many people in terms of their everyday communication and in terms of their supposedly intimate relationships ended up stuck in banalities, right? They don't communicate in any depth; they don't have real intimacy.
39:25 Nick: When we think about social media and digital communications as sort of being circumscribing mediums by which we can communicate as well...
39:31 Paul: Well, that seems to me to aggravate the problem more than...
39:34 Nick: Yes, indeed.
39:34 Paul: But it's a very old human problem and the way I think about living poetically is that you live your story, so there's authenticity in this. It's not affectation. Certainly, one can write poetry in an affected manner and there are many people I think who have a view that poetry is artificial, that it's pretence, that it's fantasy, that it doesn't have any strong relationship with reality.
40:02 There are occasions where that well may be true and if people live their lives in a certain way that's not very poetic then they make it true, but suppose instead you live your life inside story and you're creating a story authentically with depth of meaning and you're giving expression to that story in your poetry, then I would say that's the real deal and that, I don't blush to say, is what I've been able to get to, and I recommend it to others. It's not easy. It's not a little game, right? It is real and it's challenging.
40:39 Nick: Do you mean to say that being able to write, think and feel poetry has heightened your everyday experience and also heightened your feeling of being in the world phenomenologically since childhood to adolescence to early adulthood and now maturity as well?
40:55 Paul: Yes. It means two things. One, as we said earlier, I have come to the point now where I can give articulate expression to things that previous I couldn't. You know, I would experience them but I couldn't give it articulate or poetic expression. Now, even looking back 50 or 60 years, I'm doing that.
41:11 But more importantly in a way, what I now find is that I can have an experience, I can have an encounter with somebody, I can reflect on an object - even a simple household object - and poetry just arises because I'm experiencing it as you say phenomenologically and so much more meaning comes alive for me than it does for people who for instance think of any given object around them, if they think about it all it's just an object.
41:39 Nick: A humble podcast microphone for instance.
41:41 Paul: Yeah. I mean, the way I think about objects, whether it be a podcast microphone or a teacup or whatever... [sirens in the distance]
41:47 Nick: This is thoroughly unpoetic. It's a horrible...
41:51 Paul: Well, you see there are assumptions built into saying that it's horribly unpoetic but think about it this way. Using your expression, phenomenologically, any given object we encounter - and a microphone is a perfectly good example - is phenomenal. It is an awesome thing when you stop and contemplate what brought this into being? Why is it possible? How is it possible to do what we're doing and recording something with considerable fidelity and considerable autonomy? This was not possible a hundred years ago or two hundred years ago. It wasn't possible in the ancient world, right? The technologies that we dispose of now when used intelligently, when appreciated sensitively are extraordinary.
42:32 Nick: It actually is extraordinary, isn't it, because it was a conversation we were having in your living room here in a beautiful corner of Melbourne which will be beamed out into the world and connect with other people who will be listening to this podcast and intellection and perhaps find some gradation of, understanding and resonance themselves.
42:51 Paul: I mean, that's the technological projection. That's what it's capable of doing, but when we talk about poetry here, I'm saying the meaning inherent in that object, its mere existence is a source for wonder. If we just stop and reflect for a moment, instead of taking it so entirely for granted that it's just some dull thing, right?
43:10 Experiencing life that way means when you encounter as for example we all do in Melbourne - you encounter someone who is a beggar, whose life has fallen apart for whatever reason. You could walk past them. You could have some stock standard or banal attitude towards beggars, or you can pause and reflect on what this signifies - this person, what background they've come from, how striking it is that there's such a contrast between their life and yours, to start imagining how might it be possible even in principle to resurrect that life, to do something for that person and what would it be and so on.
43:51 So, at every point in your life, whether you're eating, encountering people, using everyday objects or reading literature, this awakened sense of significance, meaning, perspective is what it means to live poetically. Then, giving expression to that by capturing your experience in articulate speech enables other people to share in those perceptions and perhaps to acquire through that sharing the very idea of doing that themselves and how you might experience life that way.
44:26 Nick: We've just been talking about living poetically and how you feel that you are now at this stage of your life able to do so. Have you given effect to this feeling or sensation in any poetry?
44:37 Paul: Yeah, I have and it won't surprise you if I say that the poems I've written along those lines have been very recent ones because it's only been in the last two years that I've reached this point of thinking I've arrived, I feel as though I am living poetically.
44:53 One of the poems I wrote only in the last six months or so is called Robert Graves on Majorca. Some of at least of your listeners will know that Robert Graves calls himself a poet and a novelist and a writer and a poet, as it were. He died in 1985 and he was very old when he died. He was one of the famous great war poets. You know, he emerged from the first world war and his initial poetry – mostly - was about that.
45:24 Then, he couldn't bring himself to stay in England, live in England. He wanted to be a writer of a distinctly kind of - he left England and went to the island of Majorca in the Mediterranean, and he spent most of the rest of his life living in Majorca with his muse, a woman called Laura Riding. He wrote most of his poetry and books about the nature of poetry and his famous novels like Claudius, Belisarius and so on, there in Majorca.
45:51 I wrote a poem called Robert Graves in Majorca because I was thinking and had thought for many years, "Gee, I'd like to be like Robert Graves. I'd like to go to a place like Majorca and just write poetry and write novels."
46:05 As you'll see or your listeners will hear in this poem, I reflect on that and then come to the realisation in the poem and at the end of the poem that actually, I don't need to go to Majorca because right here, right now is my Majorca; I’m doing this, right?
46:21 It was really nice to see that emerge in the poem because again I didn't mechanically conceive of that and then just sort of hack it out. I started writing about Graves in Majorca and then I realised as I wrote the poem where this was taking me.
46:34 It goes as follows:
XXIV: Robert Graves on Mallorca
Poetry is housed at Canallun, so Graves decreed -
Once at that faraway home, to which he’d fled
From the scars of war - and domesticity -
With a new muse and a fugitive longing:
To write in devotion, to sing history.
Deia, where he lived, sounds so like goddess;
And there, we know, he wrote his paean to her:
The White Goddess of his fond imagination -
The Moon, the Muse of ancient times;
To whom he could or would not say goodbye.
His grasp of myth was imprecise,
His arguments quite whimsical;
Yet here he walked, each morning,
Through the hills, down to the sea,
Read The Times and wrote prolifically.
Here, he later wrote, was such tranquillity
And that was why he made Mallorca home:
The sun, the sea, the hills and olive trees,
Sans politics and superfluous luxuries,
Gave him grace for memoir, myth and verse
I’ve longed for years for some such Canallun;
A writer’s refuge lived in with my muse -
A hamlet with a better Laura Riding -
But could I find it, would you choose
To dwell with me in hiding?
I first read Graves’s verse when I was young:
‘Love without hope’, ‘Lost love’, ‘One hard look’;
But now the notion tingles on my tongue
That these soft songs, the poems in this book,
Are our abode - our living Canallun.
48:04 So, notice that the poem draws upon not only the refined resources of languages but on the poetic past in the form of life and poetry of Robert Graves, imagined geography and personal memories of love and loss, ideally with poetic feeling but not least how as it concludes, it finds a surprising insight. One not anticipated at the beginning of the poem. Not obvious, but itself made in the process of rendering the reflection poetic; that one may long to be Graves or be on Majorca, but one's own poems such as this present one - are one's own Majorca, and one is a poet now.
48:43 Nick: I think that brings the arc of our conversation today, Paul, to a natural end but before we do wrap up today, I just wanted to ask a question not so much about poetry but literature and its status or I suppose utility as a human art form which enables knowledge of the self, of others across time and this has been reflected throughout a lot of your readings today, in paralleling your life to Graves or Wordsworth and so on or even Homer for instance, but its ability to kind of allow us to understand humanity and the human condition across the centuries and millennia.
49:25 So, the quote I'm going to read today to sort of kick off your subsequent reflections hopefully is one from one of my favourite books. It's Michel Houellebecq’s Submission which I reference a little bit too much around you, I think.
49:38 It goes as follows: "The special thing about literature, the major artform of a western civilisation now ending before our very eyes, is not hard to define. Like literature, music can overwhelm you with sudden emotion, move you to absolute sorrow or ecstasy. Like literature, painting has the power to astonish and to make you see the world through fresh eyes but only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit as a whole, with all its witnesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettiness’s, its obsessions, its beliefs.
50:09 With whatever it finds moving, interesting, exciting or repugnant, only literature can give you access to a spirit from beyond the grave; a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you'd have in conversation with a friend. Even in our deepest, most lasting friendships, we never speak as openly as when we face a blank page and address a reader we do not know."
50:31 So, what do you make of that? Does that sort of have resonance in you and your attitude toward literature?
50:38 Paul: It absolutely does and in three ways that I'd specify. The first is that I've always been a reader of literature and history. I was a precocious reader as a child and I completely relate to this idea of gaining access through the written word, a quality written word, to a world of reality and imagination that's otherwise just not there.
51:01 The second level which I relate to is that there have been particular works of literature which expanded my imagination way beyond what straightforward factual studies or discipline studies have done.
51:17 I feel as though I've said this a couple of times in interviews with you and I probably, if people are observing, say it a little too often but that's only to show how significant it actually was, and that is that when I was a very young boy, our fifth grade teacher read us a number of children's stories. I said to her in recent years that those stories made an indelible impression but above all, The Lord of the Rings which she read to the class, it just made a huge impression on my imagination as a child.
51:49 I should emphasise by way of closing out that second point that, that impact on my imagination was not such that it took me off into a fantasy world. I've not actually read a lot of fantasy literature. Rather, what the Lord of the Rings opened up to me was the very idea of a whole world, his imaginary and in miniature.
52:11 I thought to myself when I was still very young what would it be like if you had that kind of integrated, diachronic understanding, the understanding across time and history and meaning of the real world. I've spent my life trying to acquire that one and understanding.
52:27 The third and perhaps most important point is this and it's one that I would say I derive principally from reading the works of George Steiner many years ago. If we think of language as the way - I have some friends who are analytical philosophers, who do think of it this way - as a medium that is supposed to communicate simply straightforward, transparent, logical information, we thoroughly misunderstand what language is all about, to say nothing of literature.
52:55 As Stier used to argue, the whole point of language, the way it in fact works for human beings and what gives it its magic and its great power is that it defines our identity and our experience over, against and around and past and beyond objects. It isn't just about communicating truth or facts. It's about generating meaning and interpretation and alternative possibilities. That's what literature does if it's any good at all. That's what poetry does if it's any good at all.
53:23 So, metaphor and simile and the language of futurity and possibility, you know, the conjunctives mood - sorry, not the conjunctive; the subjunctive mood, octative mood. You know, the very idea of dream, of imagination is crucial to our capacity to set ourselves free, even in dire circumstances, by remembering and imagining and projecting and countering, alright? That's to live poetically if you can do that and if you can share it powerfully with others.
53:57 Nick: Thank you very much for your time today, Paul.
53:58 Paul: You're most welcome. It's always a pleasure.