ANDREW BURKE: In going back through your works, I reread READING AUSTRALIAN POETRY (University of Queensland Press, 1987) and started revising my literary theory texts. In the end I stumbled on Aristotle's Poetic Truth and Historical Truth and so I'll start with a quote::
'It will be clear from what I have said that it is not the poet's function to describe what has actually happened, but the kinds of thing that might happen, that is, that could happen ... For this reason poetry is something more philosophical and more worthy of serious attention than history; for while poetry is concerned with universal truths, history treats of particular facts.' ARISTOTLE
Is this how you see it?
ANDREW TAYLOR: Aristotle would say that, wouldn’t he, not being a historian. Heroditus might have said the opposite. So I’ll start with history or, more generally any factual writing, which would also include good quality journalism, science and economic writing, as well as political and social analysis. I actually read a lot of this, much more than poetry. If you want to understand what’s happening in the world, that’s what you have to read. [For example, if you want an insight into the mess of current American politics, Greg Grandin’s historical study, The End of the Myth, is an eye-opener. Siddhartha Mukheerjee’s two books on cancer and genetics, and Nancy Forbes’ and Basil Mahon’s joint biographies of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, and Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, (to name just a few) taught me a lot about medicine and science.] Poetry can’t exist in a social or intellectual vacuum, and the best poetry never has. Think of Goethe, Coleridge, Shelley etc…
Another way of thinking about Aristotle’s distinction is to say that not only is what he calls history fact based, but that it has a certain propensity for closure. Ok, its conclusions may be – often are, in reality – tentative, but they tend towards conclusions (literally closures) all the same. Poetry need not do that and, in my case, usually resists that. I feel that poetry should be an opening out, a widening of possibilities rather than a tying up of loose ends. Maybe that’s why I’m so attracted to coastlines.
I grew up on the Southern Ocean coast at Warrnambool in Victoria, where the next land mass looking out to sea is Antarctica, and I’ve been a coastal person ever since. I was a paleosurfie, though you might call me an ancient one now. Every wave to me was a question – still is - and when the sea was occasionally and uncharacteristically flat, that was also a mystery. You can’t stay still in the surf, you’re constantly and often unpredictably shaken and jostled, even bullied – there’s no comfortable end point, no logical conclusion. All you can do eventually is drag yourself up on the sand and dry out. Until the next time. That’s poetry for me.
So I guess I’m contradicting myself. On the one hand I read lots of fact-based material that searches, no matter how tentatively, for answers, conclusions. And I write poetry that refuses to do that. I think that’s a healthy tension.
AB: How much has theory influenced your poetry?
AT: Not much. Not much in the writing of it, anyway. I got a good introduction to theory when I audited, as they call it, an undergraduate course given by Jonathan Culler at Cornell in the early 1980s. Jonathan is fluent in French and could explicate writers such as Derrida, Barthes and Althusser in clear English, without any of that often turgid translationese that became so common. (Some people accused him of oversimplifying, which was not the case.) This helped me in the reading of texts: reading against the grain, reading to reveal hidden and often ideological elements (gender, racial, political etc) blind spots, absences etc etc. In other words, to read poetry with the care and microscopic attention that a good poet brings to its writing. All this in addition to reading for the poetry’s aural and rhythmic complexities and patternings.
Perhaps something of what I learned from theory spilled over to my writing of it, without my being overly conscious. More a habit of mind than an explicit attempt to write poetry involving theory, as some people tried. As I tried to avoid. Perhaps it made me more conscious of what poetry isn’t, the silence beneath poetry, the blank paper between the words, the unspoken of poetry. But I think other things were involved too.
AB: What other things?
AT: Eighteen years ago I was diagnosed with cancer and statistically my survival chance was quite low. Well, thanks to the brilliant medical attention I received in Perth I’m still here, unscathed. But that taught me a lot. First, I learned that I wasn’t at all afraid of dying. Second, all my sympathy was for those I loved, not for myself. Third, life is precious, but spread very thin over the immensity of everything else. And easily broken. Montale’s poetry is very aware of this: he talks somewhere of il buio olte la siepe, ‘the darkness beyond the hedge’. What he calls darkness I call silence.
Our fragile grasp on things was also clear in my follow-up visits to the oncologist, waiting to learn whether I had the all clear – for the moment. I wrote a poem about that being like waiting at a border, like a refugee, waiting for someone to pronounce on my future, my life. With the world full of refugees, it’s hard to think that the billions devoted to sending a lander to Mars is well spent, no matter how fascinating I find the science.
AB: Do you remember the circumstances under which you began to write?
AT: A good question and very hard to answer. I grew up in a country town before television, and the house was full of books, including some English poetry, which I read. My sister is seven years older than I, and was an excellent pianist. I used to sit in the lounge room listening to her practising Beethoven sonatas and letting the music work on me. At high school there was a girl my age also an excellent pianist, and the school encouraged her very much. This encouraged me too to do things beyond school work and sport, to listen to the music in words and the rhythms of language.
When I was about fourteen I discovered Judith Wright and TS Eliot, and that really got me going. As a country town kid I’d wandered lonely as a cloud often enough, but now I found poetry that wasn’t about daffodils or distant stars, but about things and places I could experience at first hand. After that there was no stopping me. Still, my first book didn’t come out until I was thirty.
AB: You mentioned music. Is music important to you in writing poetry?
AT: Yes, in several ways. I love music, though I’d be a hopeless musician. I’ve even tried writing melodies, but have no idea how people do it. I tried writing poems in sonata form, after reading Eliot’s Four Quartets, and found it can’t be done, though you can do it with songs, where the music can justify the form. And I’ve written the libretti for two operas, with the composer Ralph Middenway, which taught me a lot about writing for the stage.
There’s music in language too. I know that’s a cliché, so perhaps I could say that language has complex aural qualities that are important for poetry if one is really attentive to them. These vary from language to language: those in German are very different from those in Italian or French, let alone English. As an undergrad I also wrote Latin poetry, which was wonderful in sharpening that sense. Is there any line anywhere to equal Virgil’s ‘per ingens silentium lunae’ as the Greeks creep up at night on their final attack on Troy?
Everyone knows about rhyme, half-rhyme, allit… etc. And something about rhythm (and I don’t mean metre). But a lot of poetry that I read today seems to have forgotten about them. Maybe I can come back to that later. I write to hear the sound of the language, the rhythms and cadences, the inflexions and recurrences of sounds… I could go on and on, it’s so complex. For me it’s like writing music, and just as in music the pauses and silences are crucial, so they are with me in poetry too. Poetry without silence is like light in a room with no knowledge of the darkness outside.
AB: My favourite poetry definition is by John Wain: Poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking. A lot of my poems come from walking, a flaneur poet! You’ve been a marathon runner and then a kayak paddler. Does your physical activity influence your poetry? How and when do you write your first draft?
AT: I’ve never been a marathon runner, and I’m a lousy dancer, but I’ve covered a lot of water in my kayaks. And I do lots of walking, especially in the Covid-19 era, since I can’t travel abroad and even interstate travel is dicey. I used to be a sprinter, and I think my poetry is a bit like sprinting. Fairly short poems, the finish line already vaguely in sight from the start. I say vaguely, because I never write a poem towards a predetermined end, and certainly not with a predetermined length (except for sonnets). But I know I’ll run out of puff if I try to go on too long, the poem will get wordy and worthy rather than light on its feet. Isn’t it interesting how the same terms apply to both running and poetry!
Although I write short poems, longer forms have their attractions too, like walking. But I’ve built those longer poems, like The Crystal Absences, and Rome, from small parts that I can write, usually, in a single sitting. I can’t do narrative or, more accurately, narrative doesn’t attract me so I don’t know how to do it in poetry. But I’ve liked building up longer forms from small bits, like brick laying, each bit not just continuing on from its precursor but also reflecting back on it.
Many of my poems have started with a line in my head that comes to me as I’m walking. I don’t carry a notebook so I have to let it churn around to the rhythm of my walking (or kayaking) until I can write it down. Rhythm (not metre) is very important to me, and walking and kayaking are both very rhythmic activities. Rhythm keeps forward movement balanced and coherent, which is something that I find lacking in some contemporary poetry. I don’t mean regular, repetitive rhythm, dum-dee-dum stuff, but flexible, sinuous and coherent rhythm that leads you on in a confident way. Like a good guide into unfamiliar territory . Of course good metrical poetry also has this. Just read Wordsworth, who was a great walker too.
AB: How many drafts do you do before you abandon the poem? (Do you ever go back to a poem when it’s published?
AT: As few as possible. But of course almost all poems need revising, they’re not dreams. But I don’t keep tinkering with them if they move right, though I’ll change words or phrases if I can find a way of improving them, or if the sound’s wrong or the rhyme too obvious. I read them over to myself aloud to make sure they don’t limp or stumble. And if that proves too hard, I just ditch the poem and write another one. That’s the advantage of writing short poems. And once they’re done, they’re done. I don’t go back to them after they’ve been published.
AB: After many years living in many different countries – how many? – have you developed a taste for international poetry, not the Sydney ‘poetry community’?
AT: I’ve lived in six countries, on and off. When I graduated from Melbourne University I was expected to go to Cambridge, but instead I went to Florence, and lived in Italy for two years, one in Florence and one in Rome. I’ve been back may times since. I’ve spent a lot of time in the USA, and even more in Germany, where my wife comes from and where she has a house. I once made a list of how many town or cities I’ve lived in for more than a month – excluding hotels – and it came to twenty two. But I’ve always felt myself inerasably Australian, that kid from Warrnambool who’s been let loose on the world.
I’ve read a lot of American and European poets. Penguin had a wonderful series, many years ago, of Modern European Poets, where I could read poets like Holub, Cavafy and Herbert and many others, which I’d pick up at Cheshire’s Bookshop in Melbourne. And where I could buy a lot of contemporary American poetry as well, including Donald Hall’s wonderful Contemporary American Poets. Which is why I spent a year in Buffalo NY in 1970-71 for the coldest winter of my life, where I met Ginsberg, Corso, Merwin, Bly, Levertov, Kinnell. Unfortunately I missed Berryman, who gave a reading the night I arrived, and Diane Wakoski, who arrived at the train station but couldn’t get any further because the blizzard was too intense. Of course I’ve met many other poets in the fifty years since then: Heaney, Transtromer, Hughes, Amichai, Enzensberger, Ammons… that’s what happens when you move around a lot. But I also tried to read as much Australian poetry as I could, as soon as it came out. But I haven’t been able to keep up with it all today – there’s just too much. If you put all that together, maybe that’s the ‘poetry scene’ I’ve belonged to, scattered all over the place.
I don’t really know what the consequence of all this has been, because I’ve always seen myself as an Australian poet. But not part of any group here, probably because I lived mostly in Adelaide and Perth. I’ve only been living in Sydney for six years. And the Sydney ‘poetry community’ has been hit by the pandemic, with most of the readings and launches cancelled just as I was starting to get to know people, or get reacquainted with people I’d known many years before. Things should get better soon.
Q7: I know you’ve translated Montale. Have you translated any other poets? What’s the richness of that experience?
A: In 1985 Beate and I published a book of translations of four woman poets who wrote in German. Beate’s English wasn’t as perfect as it is now, so she did the immediate translation from German and I worked with her to make the translations read like real poems in English while being as accurate as possible. It was a great experience, working with microscopic attention across languages to achieve a result that we were both happy with.
When I had a fellowship in the Whiting Library in Rome in 2004 I made a number of translations of Eugenio Montale’s poems, which I’d admired ever since my first time in Italy. Some of those are published in The Unhaunting. Translation is great because it takes you away from your own poetry, your own too familiar way of thinking and doing. And translating well forces you to look microscopically at the original, not translating simply word for word or phrase for phrase – anyone with a dictionary can do that – but trying to grasp a whole poem and rewrite it so that it’s the same poem, but in another language. Something like Liszt did, with his piano transcriptions of other composers’ orchestral works.
I also wrote the book length poem, Rome, while there.
Frost said that poetry is what’s lost in the translation. I think he was quite wrong: poetry is what survives the act of translation, if it’s done well. But strangely, translations date, get to look old, unlike the originals, which never do. There’s always a need for new ones. And new poems too.
AB: With your permission,
I’ll end with your Writing, an
opening poem to Impossible Preludes
(Margaret River Press, 2016):
is tracing a spider’s footprints
across a web
across a scorching rock
across the underside of a leaf
across one’s foot
across the back of one’s hand
is leaving oneself behind
as a spider does
as it spins its web
Andrew Taylor is the author of more than seventeen books of poetry, the most recent being Collected Poems (Salt, UK 2004), The unhaunting (Salt, UK 2009), which was short listed for the 2009 Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, and Impossible Preludes (Margaret River Press, 2016). He has published much literary criticism, and written the libretti for two operas, as well as translating poetry from German and Italian, including the work of the Italian Nobel Laureate Eugenio Montale. He has taught in universities in Australia, Germany and China, is Professor Emeritus at Edith Cowan University, Perth, and now divides his time between Sydney and Wiesbaden in Germany.
Andrew Burke (MA, PhD) is an Australian poet, with numerous books to his credit, the latest of which is New & Selected Poems (Hobart: Walleah Press, 2020)