'Through frosted glass'

Peter Robinson in conversation with Ian Sansom

Ian Sansom: John Ashbery recently described your work as 'curiously strong' and you've also been called the finest poet of your generation. You've published two collections with Carcanet, a book of critical essays with OUP; you've edited the poems of Adrian Stokes and a book of essays on Geoffrey Hill, as well as two poetry magazines, Perfect Bound and Numbers; you've published numerous essays and reviews, and you won the 1988 Cheltenham Prize, yet your work still seems hardly known here in England. Why?

Peter Robinson: Perhaps it's something to do with not being in one or two rumpus-making anthologies, or not doing many readings, or not seeming to represent any salient faction or minority, or writing poems that are like frosted glass: neither polemically opaque nor transparently popular. Perhaps I have some loyal readers but, as you say, I haven't been granted a large audience yet.

IS: What do you think Ashbery meant by 'curiously strong'?

PR: Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps he had somewhere in the back of his mind a little magazine edited by Ian Patterson which was called The Curiously Strong, also named after the mints. He's having fun with Harold Bloom's 'strong' poets who rewrite the metaphors of the world, or whatever, and maybe we 'curiously strong' are more interested in giving the world as it is some oblique attention. Actually, I took it as a funny way of paying a compliment to poems by younger writers such as Mark Ford whose work he happened to like.

IS: In the preface to In the Circumstances you state your belief in 'poetry as a response to other lives and the otherness of those lives.'

PR: That phrase was written by one of the anonymous reporters on the text I submitted to OUP. I lifted it because it seemed to sum up an aspect of what I was trying to get at in the various chapters. There's a thread of poetry associated with the familiar style, that is full of other people and their differences: from before Ben Jonson to Frank O'Hara and beyond. Those kinds of poem which take place between people are ones I'm particularly drawn to.

IS: So how would you reply to the reviewer of Entertaining Fates who described your work as solipsistic?

PR: Timothy Harris thought he detected in me, not my work, what he called 'a self-absorption amounting almost, if not in fact to, solipsism.' The personal note in his review was unfortunate. He doesn't know me. Stephen Romer wrote to the magazine in which that remark appeared expressing his disgust with the review and calling the charge of solipsism 'absurd'. It was a kind gesture from a friend who I like to believe exists independently of my consciousness of his existence. Last year a benign tumour was taken out of my brain in an operation which required a twenty-four hour anaesthetic. Parma, playing at Wembley, had won the European Cup Winner's Cup while I was unconscious. Piazza Garibaldi had been full of other people celebrating the victory, having their feelings whether I lived or died. It was very reassuring. Harris's review came out during my convalescence. Why was he so angry? Many of the poems in that book, and especially the long one 'Confetti', are expressly about other people's feelings. Harris's depression may relate to the difficulties involved in writing about intimate situations while wishing to preserve some degree of anonymity and privacy. The poems are like frosted glass in this too: they half reveal and half conceal their occasions.

IS: Is that true of the poems in This Other Life about witnessing the rape of a companion?

PR: Yes, it is, though there's not much mistaking the occasion there. One or two readers have said they felt uncomfortable reading those poems. Why shouldn't they? A reviewer accused me of re-raping the girl by writing them. The person involved kindly relieved me of guilt on that particular count. What can I say? It happened, and it happened to me too, in that I was forced to witness it at gun point. It took place when we were both twenty-two years old, so that practically everything I've written has been shadowed by that far-off event. By enduring what she did, she probably saved both our lives. I felt circumstantially responsible for what happened, and ashamed of my own sex... and much more that I can't possibly talk about here. The poems were written between 1979 and 1985. Eight short poems in seven years, between four and ten years after the fact. They were trying to make something good out of an unspeakable blank in both our youths.

IS: You seem fascinated by silences, those moments when language falters or fails.

PR: Yes, silences are places where poetry starts and stops, where taboo subjects wait to be touched on. If there's something that isn't able to be said, poetry might try to make it sayable, or find a way of pointing to what remains to be intuited.

IS: But isn't that just an English obsession with embarrassment and awkwardness?

PR: I'm English, and can be evasive, it's true. I don't enjoy head-on confrontation, because usually someone is simplifying matters to score a point or inflict pain, but I doubt that this explains it. After all, much French poetry since Mallarmé has been obsessed with silence. Paul Celan's poems are fretted with silence. Silence is the normal circumstance in which poems are sounded.

IS: Would you be prepared to admit that your descriptions of silences are themselves self-protective, elusive?

PR: Maybe so. As I say, my poems are often about what Giles Foden once called 'our most private and troubled moments' and if phrases come to me which touch on such moments they will be pointing towards some hinterlands of human relations that can't simply be put in the poem. Then, however based on particular experiences, poems need to stand relatively alone. If the reader cannot tell who I'm talking to or why, as someone recently complained, then suffice to say that I don't think the reader needs to know. Readers are, of course, free to disagree.

IS: Do you think silence can be positive?

PR: In formal gardens here they have a bamboo device which sends a drop of water into a pond at intervals just to emphasise the silence.

IS: And your sensitivity to moments of linguistic awkwardness translates into your deployment of what might be called difficult syntax?

PR: In my first book, Overdrawn Account some of the syntax is over-consciously trying to turn in unpredictable ways. In This Other Life there is an attempt to make stanzas of complex sentences that contain and bring forward various meanings simultaneously. In Entertaining Fates I allowed syntactic crevices which the reader might, as Browning once devised, leap over. More recently, the sentences have become a little simpler, perhaps. Syntax is always an issue for me because the poems come into my head as snatches of lineated rhythmic phrasing, rarely complete clauses, and it is not always possible to produce plain prose syntax without introducing filler that ruins everything. I compose the bits hoping they'll resonate, keep their freshness, and convey enough narrative or continuous sense to communicate with readers. Certainly I don't set out to mystify. Quite the contrary.

IS: When did you start writing poetry?

PR: I began at the usual moment. Between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, writing poems developed from a kind of prank into an obsession. I couldn't exactly reconstruct all the stages. We were studying the Metaphysical poets and Joyce's A Portrait for A-level. There was a dedicated English teacher called Alan Hodgkinson who gave me a copy of Ulysses to read. Rebelling against my father (an Anglican minister), getting drunk and going out with girls, I was lent Bob Dylan's LPs by someone slightly older. There was a copy of T. S. Eliot's selection of Pound, and a volume of Robert Lowell in a Liverpool bookshop. Mix it all up and there I am painting pictures, learning to play the guitar, and imitating the Songs of Innocence and Experience, aspiring to the latter, betraying the former: a fairly standard case history for a would-be poet born in the coronation year, I imagine.

IS: Do you feel part of any English tradition?

PR: My mother's relatives were working people from the North-East and I feel affection for Basil Bunting. My father's brother wore himself out in the Birmingham car industry and Roy Fisher was the poet who most helped me find my way when young. I grew up singing George Herbert before becoming aware that he had written what I had in my mouth. More recently, experience has made me feel close to Elizabeth Bishop's poems about loss and travel. Well, I could go on mentioning poets I've felt affinities with for a long time, and the list probably wouldn't add up to any single tradition.

IS: How did your work on Adrian Stokes affect your poetry?

PR: Thanks to Donald Davie, I came to Adrian Stokes through Pound. It was almost immediately after that rape happened. I had just begun graduate studies, and there, as if by chance, help was at hand: Stokes writes about the wholeness of other people being reinforced through art, and about attack and reparation in the making of sculptures, paintings and poems.

IS: You've also translated work by several poets, most notably Vittorio Sereni. What attracted you to him?

PR: I came across Franco Fortini's 'To Vittorio Sereni' in Hamburger's translation and then a remark Montale made about one of Sereni's books: 'But the difficulty starts when one is forced to live on what is the very opposite of poetry, accepting the risks, the torments and the necessity of camouflaging oneself beneath the modus vivendi of the man in the street. Such poetry, which should logically lead to silence is nevertheless obliged to be eloquent.' The man on the street, that silence, and the obligation to be eloquent all sounded interesting. Marcus Perryman did some rough drafts and I started working on them. That was fourteen years ago, when I couldn't speak a word of Italian. Sereni was another god-send. His work is about how circumstantial guilt can damage the ability to live fully: when faced with the invasion of Sicily, he let himself be captured, missed the civil war of 1943-5, and never quite recovered from his existence as a POW. My father was travelling the length of Italy with the British forces during the two years he spent in Algerian prison camps. Vittorio Sereni was also the kindest poet I ever met. The rape we've been talking about took place on a road somewhere between Milan and the Northern Italian Lakes, where Sereni was born. Working on him helped to transform a nightmarish sense of Italy into something much more benevolent.

IS: Do you feel at home now in Japan?

PR: Not very, but it's a safe and unthreatening place where I can earn a living and am allowed time to write and research. There's an intermittent tradition of having poets as foreign lecturers in my department. It begins with Ralph ('How delightful to meet Mr') Hodgson; then there's George Barker, James Kirkup, and me: a motley crew, but at least writing poems here is assumed to be natural. For a foreigner not to feel at home in Japan is normal. But not feeling at home in England where I didn't find a job, where my marriage went wrong, and where the political culture has been going through a long drawn out phase of moral and managerial self-deception, hypocrisy, and contempt for others...that's a different matter, because I love England and have good reasons to be grateful to its Health Service - among the country's greatest achievements, I think.

IS: Your work has always engaged with serious moral questions.

PR: Well, I would say 'ordinary' rather than 'serious.'

IS: Yes, but you take your responsibilities as a poet seriously.

PR: A poet's responsibilities go in more than one direction. There's the work and there are the lives from which it comes and to which it returns. Yeats wrote that 'The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work.' No choice at all, really. Joyce's story 'A Painful Case', written years before, shows up that false distinction. If you choose perfection of the work, you'll mess up your life, and that will, in turn, mess up your work. If you choose perfection of the life, you're either a saint or deluded. Larkin, I think, took Yeats's 'The Choice' seriously, or used it as an alibi for not marrying Monika or Maeve. Motion's biography and the Selected Letters give glimpses of the sorry pickle he produced by trying to live 'a writer's life.' F. T. Prince recently wrote encouraging me not to worry too much as there is no such thing as an immaculate oeuvre, just as there is no such thing as an immaculate life. Perhaps the point is to try and make the life and the work good enough.

IS: Terry Eagleton called your critical essays pretentious, didn't he?

PR: As far as reviews are concerned I've been around long enough to have received the good, the bad, and the ugly. Eagleton states that, 'For Robinson, poems are open to what he somewhat pretentiously calls their "otherness".' The word 'otherness' is adopted from the critical writings of Stokes, and he developed it from the psychoanalytic theories of Melanie Klein. It has also been elaborated by the philosopher Richard Wollheim in relation to both those authors. My only innovation is to apply the ideas to ways of making and reading poems, something that Stokes had begun to do himself. If I'm being pretentious by doing this, at least I can console myself with the thought that I'm in good company.

IS: Both in your poems and in In the Circumstances you seem torn between the idea that poetry has a duty to make amends and the belief that such an ambition is misplaced. How do you explain the apparent contradiction?

PR: An early poem of mine is called 'Some Hope'. We need hope in facing what life throws at us, and in trying to repair damage to our shop-soiled world; yet how could I imagine that trying to make amends by producing poems can make a difference? I'd like poems to be disarming...but then I would have to be 'curiously strong' not to need defences.

IS: In Leaf-viewing there seems to be a change of tone. The poem 'Leaving Sapporo', about a missed plane, begins, 'This had not happened before'; there seems a certain relief in that, and the poem ends, 'blame the unforeseen through which we live...but, yourself, forgive.' An earlier poem, 'In Summer Wind' ends, 'you know it isn't in me / to judge, forgive myself, still less forget.' Are you learning to forgive yourself?

PR: Landing in Japan, I found a place in which many of the concerns which had haunted me in England, and which get expressed in Entertaining Fates, were not relevant. One recent poem represents the words of a Japanese colleague saying: 'Put away the personal sensations.' It isn't possible, but I was grateful for the opportunities working here offered. 'In Summer Wind' ends by adapting the conclusion from Sereni's poem 'First Fear': 'On my own / I cannot bring myself to justice.' It's not for me to forgive myself and I have a painfully good memory for some things, but I can ask Teruhiko Nagao, the dedicatee of the Sapporo poem, to forgive himself, because this is something difficult for Japanese people to do, I understand, and they go to lengths to avoid loss of face for this reason. As regards making amends, you might think that the poem does this, but then it also inscribes Professor Nagao's embarrassment into tablets of stone. You could think it made matters worse, but I'm glad to report that the person concerned didn't feel that way. In the year that produced 'In Summer Wind', I started on a novel about the circumstantial responsibility which we talked about earlier. Its narrator observes at one point that feeling guilty can be a form of self-importance. It's my belief that you can't forgive yourself; you have to be forgiven. However, you can try to give up taking on so much blame for unforeseen mishaps and calamities. Perhaps that's what I've done, to have a religious turn of mind.

Published in Oxford Poetry vol. 8 no. 1, summer 1994.
Included in Talk about Poetry: Conversations on the Art (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2006).