I’m a baby-boomer, born almost exactly sixty-five years ago, when my brewer father and housewife mother were living in a mill house in Hertfordshire. Three years later, soon after my younger brother Kit came along, they moved thirty-odd miles north to the then-small village of Hatfield Heath, also in Hertfordshire, fearing that if they stayed in the mill house any longer I might drown in the mill-stream. Hatfield Heath, and a house already but happily called Little Brewers (happily because of my father’s profession), was the place where I first became conscious of my self.
But already, and even using so innocuous a phrase as that, I feel I’m by a mill-stream again, and likely to tumble in. What do I mean by ‘my self’? Do I mean the self that I began to devise in order to cut through the air of the outside world? Or do I mean the self that I began to experience in private, which lacked all the confidences of its alter ego? I suppose the answer has to be both – but the fact is, and despite vulnerabilities, the private self felt far more like my real self, since it was not shaped and therefore compromised by any overriding wish to please, or conform, or mask. I wasn’t thinking of poetry at the time, of course, but I suppose you could say that this sense of secret authenticity is all of a piece with Wallace Stevens’ insistence that ‘the poet refuses to allow his task to be set for him’.
What I’m trying to say here is that my strongest feelings as a child – my strongest ideas about who I was – had nothing to do with what we would now call entitlement. They were primitive in opposite ways. They were feelings of jealousy (of my brother, mainly), of fear (of my father, who was a loving but agitated and undemonstrative man, whom I can now see had been seriously screwed up by his own distant parents and his time fighting in Europe after landing there on D-Day); of blind love for my mother; and of strong but murky affection for the ground beneath my feet. Although my father commuted to London for his brewery work every weekday, he was like my mother a country person. We lived quietly and out of the way. Our friends were farmers (and so were my grandfather and my uncle farmers). We had a sizeable menagerie of dogs and cats and horses and guinea pigs and goldfish. We made a religion of walking. We were English-English, as my father used to say. Which paradoxically meant among other things that we spent our summer holidays in Ireland or Scotland; I didn’t go further abroad until I was fifteen – to Portugal.
What has all this got to do with ‘the idea of creativity’ and ‘the source of inspiration’? Everything and nothing. Everything because it was the bedrock. Nothing in the sense that my father, who tended to call the shots at home, had no time for the arts. I mean, it just wasn’t on his radar. My mother read a bit (Iris Murdoch), liked the ballet in theory but so far as I can remember only went to see it once, and sometimes listened to pieces from the classical music top ten. My father had some form of logophobia; he once told me he reckoned he’d read half a book in his life: The Lonely Skier by Hammond Innes, which somebody must have told him was a thriller. Evidently not thrilling enough for him. This meant there were only a handful of books at home (The Lonely Skier of course, the autobiography of Sir Francis Chichester, an unread copy of C. P. Snow’s Corridors of Power, and a fat brick bound in dark green leather called Jock of the Bushveld; it was about a dog). It meant that theatre was an annual trip to London at Christmas to see a pantomime. It meant I never once went to an art gallery or a museum with either of my parents.
I’m not saying this to make myself sound hard done by. I wasn’t hard done by. My parents were kind people. But they (and especially my father) were predominantly old-school rural: they hadn’t been to university and vaguely looked down on people who had; they were stiff upper lipped; they were conservative (large and small ‘c’); and they were distrustful of anything artsy or intellectual. And speaking of school: so was my first school old-school – a converted country house in the Northamptonshire countryside ninety miles away from my home in Essex, complete with turrets and cabbage-smelling corridors, run by a friend of my father’s father’s girlfriend, who like most of his staff was a barely-repressed paedophile and enthusiastic flogger of young male bottoms. Philip Larkin tells us that life is ‘first boredom then fear’. This exactly reverses my own experience. The nervousness I often felt around my father – was he going to lose his temper? how could I gain his approval? – was magnified a thousand-fold during my time at this school, the ironically named Maidwell Hall, where I arrived aged seven and remained for six years.
Six very influential years, too – but not in a way that I like to describe. Maidwell shaped me in decisive ways not because I found a wonderful good-parent substitute (the English teacher obviously thought I had something, but that something was in my trousers and not my head); not because I suddenly discovered the joy of learning (I learned almost nothing in my classroom time: my brain was an impermeably frozen lump of fearfulness); not because a vitalising dose of cultural succour was dribbled amidst the stony blocks of rote-learning (there was an idiotic musical appreciation class, but that was it as far as the arts were concerned); and not because I made an especially close saviour-friend (by and large we boys were encouraged to compete with one another for everything, and not to bond).
Maidwell influenced me because I was bitterly homesick there. In particular, its routines made me feel that every good and happy time in my life (the holidays) would very soon come to an end and turn into a bad and unhappy time (the terms). In other words, it cultivated in me a profoundly elegiac attitude to life, by making me think that time was really a chain of separations, disappointments, deprivations and losses, which could only be occasionally and briefly interrupted. And I have to say (while wincing slightly at the melodrama of such a statement), that although I’ve often been much happier since I left Maidwell, my fundamental sense of things hasn’t changed much. In fact I’d say it has only deepened, as my understanding of what it means to live in time has deepened.
Was it this enforced early adoption of an elegiac structure that turned me into a poet? It’s not the kind of question I can answer accurately – although I can certainly say that it shaped my taste in poetry when (a few years later) I began to have a taste that was capable of being shaped. What I mean is: when I read the big sad poets for the first time – Wordsworth and Tennyson and Christina Rossetti and Keats and Hardy and Edward Thomas and – yes, Larkin – I thought: they understand. Life is like that. In other words, the primitive feelings that filled me as a child, led to an equally primitive need for those feelings to be confirmed and validated as an adult – and to a deep delight in finding how poetry is able to do that.
There was something else, too, about Maidwell. The sinister headmaster was a passionate gardener (orchids were his speciality), and the large garden surrounding the school was an easy place to admire. It didn’t have the wildness I had already learned to love at home – the deep cups of champagne cow-parsley that brimmed at the garden end in summer; the holly hedge where blackbirds nested; the laurel bush trimmed over the years into a tunnel-shape that only children were small enough to enter; the greenhouse with its thick green damp dizzy-making tomato smell. No, it didn’t have any of these secret and sensational places, but it was impressive alright, and it was a refuge. Somewhere I could escape the swipes of my teachers and the shouts of my peers. Somewhere I could feel safe enough to be watchful of the world around me, without feeling I was about to get into trouble. To this extent, the sense of pleasure and the sense of refuge combined with one another. If I’d read Wordsworth by then, and despite the enormous differences between the landscapes in which we grew up – his properly wild and northern, mine predominantly suburban and southern – I would have known exactly what he meant in his great long poem the Prelude when he talks about being ‘fostered’ as a child ‘by beauty and by fear’.
The garden at Maidwell, like the places to lurk and ramble at home, were also important because they gave me the peace to talk to myself. I don’t mean to dissect and analyse things that were happening to me. I mean to float in the dark tank of my own mind, wishing for things I didn’t have, imagining places I’d rather be. As this implies, I did this talking (as perhaps most children do) without paying much attention to words, but relying on my senses instead. ‘A poem begins with a lump in the throat’ says Robert Frost, ‘a lovesickness, a homesickness’. This catches exactly the kind of thing I mean – a pre-articulate, and in a way painful appetite to say something that has a shape and mood and character, but exists at a depth below or outside the bubble of language and conscious meaning.
This pre-articulate state, with its connotations of vision and dream and haunting, is of course something the best poetry finds intensely alluring. But while I can see now that it formed a seedbed for poetry in my life, poetry itself had nothing to do with it at this stage. Poetry was simply not something I considered – except when I had to discuss it in one of my English classes, or learn it as a punishment (which is how I made my first acquaintance with Hilaire Belloc and Walter de la Mare). But apart from that – nothing. No one at Maidwell let me think that poetry might have something to do with delight, or that its rhythms might be like the beat of my own pulse and heart, or that the things poetry said might help me understand where I belonged in life, or how someone who was not myself might view and comprehend the world. And yet, once again, it never occurred to me to think of this as some kind of deprivation. Because poetry was invisible at home, I saw no reason why it should be valued at school. So far as I was concerned, poetry was simply another cog in the machinery that ground out the daily obligations, traditions, punishments, and manners.
‘We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.’ So says Louise Gluck, one of the best contemporary American poets, and I know what she means. As I’ve just said, I looked at the world in childhood and I saw the shape of elegy, which I have never forgotten. But what I lacked was the means to express that elegy, the words to write it down. And I might very well never have found them, had it not been for the life-changingly happy chance of encountering a great teacher at the school I was sent to after Maidwell. When I arrived at Radley College, which is a very traditional, high-Anglican establishment outside Oxford (my parents chose it because my uncle had been there), I was thirteen years old. I expected the school to be an X-rated version of Maidwell. And it’s true to say that during the next two years, nothing happened to dispel the idea. Prefects were still licensed to beat junior boys (which they did nightly and with relish in the Senior Prefect’s study); there was still fagging (I fagged for the head of my house, Rogers, who made it my task every week to shine his shoes and clean his room and collect his copy of Playboy from the village shop, then carry it back to him rolled up like a relay baton so no one knew what it was); and the teachers (we called them ‘dons’, which felt to me like an appropriate blend of Oxbridge and the mafia) were generally alarming and remote. At the end of these first two years, my history master asked everyone in the class what we wanted to do in later life. I said I wanted to be a priest, partly because I was in the grip of adolescent religious mania, but also because I liked the idea of living in a remote rural parish with a congregation of about six, and lots of time to enjoy country walks and bird-watching (which had become my passion).
Still, for all its alarms, Radley was a milder place than Maidwell, and the lower fear factor meant that my mind began to unthaw. Not unthaw much, mind you. I bumped along near the bottom of all my classes except English, and scraped through a dismal six ‘O’ levels. My highest grade (the lowest was 6) was 5. For my ‘A’ levels, which would occupy me for two years before I set off to join the priesthood, I chose Geography, which in those days had the reputation of being the thick person’s subject, and History because my first seriously good friend Sandy Nairne was doing it, and I thought he could help me, and English, because that was the thing I liked best and found easiest.
It was the English classes where I found poetry, but before I say anything about them, I need to talk for a moment about Sandy. As many of you will be aware, he had in later life a very successful career as a curator and gallery director – spending a long time as Nick Serota’s right-hand man during the creation of Tate Modern, then running the National Portrait Gallery. At the time of our first meeting, when we were thirteen, he was quite simply unlike anyone I had ever met. For one thing, his family were professional (his father was a senior civil servant) rather than involved in business or farming. For another, he had a large family – there were six children. For another, and this was more important than anything – the whole lot of them, as I immediately discovered when I began visiting Sandy during the school holidays, talked about the arts (books, cinema, theatre, galleries – especially galleries) as easily and often as my parents talked about the weather and the blacksmith. I had nothing to contribute to these conversations, because I didn’t know anything worth saying. But for the first time I could see how I might live my life differently.
So it would be fair to say that the ground had been very well prepared by Sandy for the seeds sown by this English teacher I mentioned a moment ago. The English teacher whose name was Peter Way, and who in the first few minutes of our time together in his ‘A’ level English class, woke me up to poetry by introducing me to Thomas Hardy’s great poem ‘I look into my glass’. I’ve said elsewhere that I felt this poem go through me like a spear. And once I’d been skewered in this way, Peter had me at his mercy. It was with him that I read for the first time large chunks of Shakespeare, as well as poems from an anthology unsexily titled Theme and Variations, from which I still remember poems by Dryden, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats, Hopkins, Hardy, Edward Thomas, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Empson, Edwin Muir, Roy Campbell, Sylvia Plath, Larkin and Laurie Lee.
I think it’s worth noticing, briefly, that this is a pretty eclectic collection of poets – which prompts me to add that I don’t have a single memory from this time of anyone saying anything about having a preference for Modernists or non-modernists, or about there being any kind of standoff between the two traditions. This seems peculiar, in retrospect, and a kind of glitch in my early literary education. But it had at least one advantage. When it became clear to me that the greater concentration of my own interests lay with poets in what Donald Davie and others were later to identify as ‘the English line’ (Wordsworth, Hardy, Thomas, Larkin and so on), and when I realised that the kind of poetry I wanted to write would aim for simple language and pretty straightforward strategies, I never felt that I had to prize these poets and these elements of style to the exclusion of all others. Indeed (and I remember talking a lot about this during my time at Hull), Modernism and non-Modernist writing – despite the mutually defiant postures struck by Pound and others on the one side, and Larkin and others on the other side, seemed to me from my first acquaintance with it to be something best described as having certain characteristics to a peculiarly intense degree, rather than as a wholly new entity. And this in turn led me to feel that I could take whatever forms and terms and tones I liked from the great kit-bag of poetry, rather than sticking to one kind of approach and one alone. My ambition was, and remains, to write poems that look like a glass of water, but turn out to be gin.
I’m beginning to stray towards literary criticism here, which is not the direction I want to take today. The point I’m trying to make about the influence of Peter Way is that everything he planted in me took root and grew. I liked the inwardness of poetry, and the sense that it elicited a personal opinion which, provided I paid attention to the signposts in the lines I was reading, couldn’t be ‘wrong’ in the way that I was invariably ‘wrong’ in mathematics and other subjects. I liked the dainty game of poetic forms. I liked the wildness of throwing over these forms. I liked the unashamed way that poetry addressed itself to and expressed strong feelings. I liked the music and the dance and the play and the certainty that it made sense – but not in the way that an article in the newspaper made sense. I liked it for fitting its music to the beauty or the barbarity of its subjects. And I liked it for being unpopular.
Other boys in my classroom might have preferred one poem to another, but most of them (and apparently most of the rest of the world, if my father was anything to go by) thought that poetry was a waste of time. In particular they thought it was cissy – a girl’s thing. Which meant that for them the only possible use it might have was to get a girl’s attention – not in order to spend more time talking about poetry, but to put poetry aside at the first possible opportunity and move on to other sorts of communication. I suppose this same idea might have crossed my own mind, but at the time I wasn’t much interested in girls, and anyway – as I say – I valued above almost anything else the sense that poetry was samizdat. It was a way of creating and registering a difference between myself and my family – between myself and the society of my upbringing.
But it was also – and this was just as important – a means of beginning to speak about things in my upbringing that I wanted to preserve. Things that had to do with the countryside. When I read Wordsworth and Hardy talking about their landscapes, my head flooded with memories of the sun-struck and silent oak woods near where we lived; the ford where the cattle crossed and turned the mud to chocolate; the sticklebacks flickering in the shadows under the bridge below the Routledges’ farm; the wheat fields where the wind dabbed its cat’s paw. My head flooded, and I knew what Wordsworth and Hardy were on about. And in the process I began to understand for the first time that when we read the poetry that means most to us, we almost never say to ourselves ‘I’ve never thought that before’; we think ‘That’s right’. New thoughts may arise from this initial feeling of confirmation – new ways of perceiving the world and our place within it. But in the beginning, poetic pleasure is very powerfully to do with a sense of recognition. Of seeming to be reminded of something we already knew at some previously unreachably deep level of ourselves.
In this sense, Peter Way set me free from my past, while at the same time allowing me to preserve the parts of it that I would need for my future. He made me feel that poetry belonged within life, rather than being a weird carbuncle that teachers and others stuck on the side of life. By speaking quietly and intensely about poems, by poring over the question of why such-and-such a poet has chosen this particular word and not that particular word, by encouraging me to think about the metaphorical life of poems, by drawing attention to the ways in which poets generate emotional heat (which he insisted had as much or more to do with restraint than it did with letting it all hang out), he helped me to build the foundations on which I have built my existence. If I had to summarise his poetic taste in a phrase, it would be something from Book Eight of The Prelude. The phrase is ‘power growing under weight’. That feeling of strength coming from concentration, attentiveness, distillation, force of mind and the combined pressure of memory and the imagination.
I’m saying all this to honour a good man and pay a debt, but also to confirm a pattern that I hope is now beginning to emerge in what I have to say. I am not a gregarious person, but I have been unusually blessed by the friendships I have made, and by the influence they have exerted on me. As my English course-work cross-fertilised with the books that Peter Way leant me to read in my private time (collections by Edward Thomas and Larkin are the two I remember best), and as my conversations with Sandy led to my first visits to art galleries, to listening to music, to beginning to take an interest in socialist politics, so I felt my internal generator shudder into life, and the lights in my brain flicker on.
I began writing poems and showing them to Peter for his comments. I won the school poetry competition (that meant a lot to me, though now I wonder whether anyone else went in for it). I began reading hungrily – biking into Oxford on Saturdays and standing in front of the poetry shelves in Blackwells, not recognising any of the names I was staring at, and making wild lunges – one week Robert Graves the next Vernon Watkins. What was I aiming to create, when I was back at my desk? I had no clear idea. No firm grasp of form, no sense of an audience, and nothing like a statement to make. I was a kind of eruption. A word-geyser. But I had strong feelings. The same boiling and steaming mess of strong feelings about belonging, status and sex that exists in every adolescent – all enveloped by an equally strong idea that poetry could give them simultaneous release and government, and steady me by allowing me to look at what I had written and say to myself ‘I made that. I made that. I exist.’ Not much, you might think, on which to build the new identity I wanted. But apparently enough. When the time came for me to contemplate life after school, the recently-appointed Careers Advice Officer asked me what I wanted to do with myself and I told him (twirling my imaginary cape) ‘I AM a poet’. ‘Well there’s nothing I can do for you, then,’ he said briskly, and dismissed me from the room.
Sandy Nairne and Peter Way were both vital to me – Sandy still is, and Peter remained so until his death aged 93 last year. But (and that ‘but’ has no negative connotations) it’s true to say that I found them both within the boundaries of the life my parents had drawn for me. They were both a consequence of my upbringing, and the privileges that undoubtedly brought me. I have no doubt that their effect would have lasted for the rest of my life under any circumstances – but as it turned out, the next two important things that happened to me, which were bolts from the blue, made their existence and impact even more significant.
The first of these important things was illness. Half way through my first ‘A’ level year I developed a form of arthritis in my knee-joints that put me in plaster for a while, which didn’t have any beneficial effect, then under the knife. This meant that I missed a couple of terms in school, and recuperated at home – in the house that my parents had moved to at the same time as I left Maidwell, and which lay in deeper countryside than any I’d known before, on the edge of a village called Stisted near the Essex/Suffolk border. Here I received weekly letters from Peter Way about what I might read and write about.
I don’t think anyone used the phrase, but it was a form of long-distance learning, and I did indeed learn a lot. I learned even more, however, from living for a while outside the stream of things, in a secret-seeming and parallel time-current, where I saw my mother alone for most of every day, talked with her as I had never talked before, and drew much closer to her than would otherwise have been possible. I’d always adored her – but blindly, instinctively, almost unthinkingly. Now, on the cusp of my young manhood, I began to see what sort of individual person she was – how settled at home but also how frustrated by it; how thwarted by never having been to university; how the few books she kept in the whirligig in the corner of the sitting room, and the records she sometimes played of Julius Katchen playing Beethoven piano sonatas, were the tip of a culture-iceberg that she had never dived down to examine. As you can tell from the way I’m saying this, it occurred to me that by deepening my commitment to poetry I was doing something for her as well as for myself. I was fortifying my own existence by living the life that she had not been able to pursue.
I’ve sometimes wondered whether I didn’t in some sense invent my illness in order to make a decisive break with my upbringing and establish a new identity. It would otherwise have been very difficult for me to cross my inheritance-boundaries, without triggering the sort of catastrophic family explosion that I preferred to avoid. As it was, I could plead aches and pains to get out of the things that my emerging self found difficult or actually repellent. I’ve no doubt that I was nauseatingly pretentious and stuck-up, but no one could deny that I had illness on my side. I couldn’t go to church because I couldn’t kneel. I couldn’t go riding because I couldn’t ride. I couldn’t join in the social life of my parent’s friends and their children, whose politics and assumptions I now haughtily disliked, because I couldn’t stand up. I could, on the other hand, lie down and read books.
Which brings me to describe a moment that stays in my mind more powerfully than any other from this time. When I was sufficiently recovered from my operations – this would have been in the Spring of 1969, when I was aged sixteen and a half – I was encouraged to take long walks every day, to get my legs working again. Usually I would stride purposefully across the ponies’ field outside the house, to prove to my mother that I was doing as I should, then disappear into the shadows of the wood that stood beyond a ditch in the far corner, a wood called the Ashground, and lie down among the bluebells to read whatever book of poems I’d stuffed into my pocket – Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire had all recently become my obsessions.
On the particular day I’m thinking about now, I must have been feeling lazy, or perhaps just crocked. At any rate, instead of vanishing into the blue, I dragged a sun-lounger onto the lawn outside the kitchen window, and lay down to read there instead. Nothing French this time, but the poems of Andrew Marvell, in the Muses Library edition I’d recently bought in the local second-hand bookshop.
I can still feel the warmth of that day, still hear the hush of breeze in the big laurel bush away to my right, and still see the glare of the small neat white page, then the balm of the grass, and my mother’s herbaceous border, and the hawthorn overshadowing, and the ash tree with its grey trunk. I was in the garden reading ‘The Garden’. And suddenly there was no difference between the two. Suddenly I was both anchored deeply in the scene, yet weightless and floating. I was filled with delicious words, but speechless. I was more alive than I had ever felt, and more crammed with knowledge, but at the same time extinguished and blank.
I hadn’t read James Joyce yet, but if I had I’d have known to call this an epiphany. And when I came back to myself, which must have been a very few moments later, I understood something about the nature of poetry that has stayed with me ever since. In my brief visionary moment, I had seen that poetry placed me at a new and disconcerting angle to the world, while at the same time providing a profound feeling of completion. Wordsworth (again) knew what I’m talking about here, but if Wordsworth had been lying on that sun lounger he would have located his ‘sense of something far more deeply interfused’ in the external world: the grass and the laurel and hawthorn and the ash tree. I felt a quickened connection with those things, and with the wider spaces beyond them, but I also felt that I’d been vouchsafed a glimpse of a mystery within language. The fact, I mean, that language can establish a connection between itself and visible things, and simultaneously question, break or actually deny that connection. A vision that I would spend the rest of my life trying to apprehend more clearly, which has always escaped me, but also always drawn me on.
Does this mean that I suddenly began to think of the poet as some kind of prophet, as the Romantic poets had tended to do? No. That would have been, and to my mind still would be, too grandiose. But it did and does mean that I began to think of poetry as the medium to express in its purest form the heroic and tragic effort of humanity to catch an emanation of – well, what is the word for it? World-essence. ‘Life’s redemption’, Wallace Stevens calls it, and I can live with that. It also meant, once I had begun to think about the paradoxes inherent in what I had experienced, that I now had an idea of poetic creation what placed an equal emphasis on what can be known (the conscious mind managing questions of form and meaning), and what cannot be known (the unconscious mind delivering its murky cargo of life-created impressions and feelings). By making links, as the neurologist Nancy Andreasen says in The Creating Brain, ‘between shadowy forms of objects or symbols or words or remembered experiences that have not previously been linked’.
Then came the second thing. Three months after I was well enough to go back to school and rejoin my classes, my mother fell off her horse, which kicked out as she slipped down, and struck her on the head. For the next three years she was unconscious. For the next six years after that, she hovered in the strange nowhere-land that lies somewhere between life and death. She was conscious and able to speak, but never left hospital, was completely paralysed, and had a very patchy memory. Every so often she would catch pneumonia, as frequently happens with immobilised patients. In 1976 she died.
And what has this got to do with my life in poetry? Everything. My mother’s accident turned my enthusiastic adolescent love for poetry into absolute and prematurely-adult commitment. It threw down a subject I could not ignore and would never be able to exhaust. It established the basic principles of the belief-system that still guides everything I write and do – my sense that human existence is a prey to random forces, and that we must acknowledge this randomness even while we try to establish clear lines of intention. It confirmed in the most horribly emphatic way that I’d been right to suppose the dominant note in life was elegiac. It cemented my loyalty to the big sad poets who were already my favourites, because it confirmed my sense of them as truth tellers: ‘tragedy is true guise’, as Hardy says. And it made me believe that poems might be (among other things) a form of compensation. A way of preserving memories and of pickling the past, but also (and with less danger of nostalgia) a form of resurrection. Even perhaps a form of recompense – in the sense that my mother’s accident made me imagine life as a set of scales, in one pan of which I saw all the dismal things (deaths and losses and destructions), and in the other pan of which I saw the opportunity to put the affirming things – love, kindness, humour, tolerance, good teaching, and good doctoring.
And art. Art of all kinds, but for me poetry in particular, because in my own case, as I’ve said, poetry was already a hotline to my most urgent feelings, and my preferred way of trying to express the inexpressible. Do I mean that it was a form of therapy, and has remained so? Maybe, but I’d have to say that whatever relief the writing of a poem has ever brought me has lasted for a very short time, and to add that while I have absolutely no doubt that poetry can be liberating and assuaging in some medical contexts, where its music and metaphors break through certain neurological barriers, I’ve never myself written exclusively or even primarily for therapeutic reasons. Whenever I’ve addressed subjects of a kind that might be imagined to have some that component – such as the subject of my mother herself – my appetite for self-healing has always been subordinate to my wish to treat my own circumstances in a way that will allow others to identify with them. To catch my circumstances vividly of course (because how otherwise will anyone be able to connect with them?), but at the same time to transfigure them so that they are become emblematic of the human condition as a whole. ‘To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius’, says Emerson. I’m no genius, but I still think that’s true.
How much of this is wisdom after the event (if wisdom it be) I’m honestly not sure. But I do know that even in the immediate aftermath of my mother’s accident, I had a very strong sense that I must somehow make things – create things – add to the world – to compensate for the gap that her accident had created. Because words were the things I had already begun to enjoy and admire, I reached for them all the more urgently. In this respect the accident made me vocal. It stiffened my resolve. It focused my ambitions. And – which is not an entirely easy thing to admit – by requiring me to be at home a good deal of the time, to help as a nurse, it also stimulated my appetite to stretch my wings, to assert my independence and make my own way. To put it bluntly, home was now just too unhappy to live in all the time.
My last year at school was in this respect a kind of salvation. And so was university a salvation – university, where I went in 1970, the first in my father’s family to do so, and gladly succumbed to a host of new influences. If I were to tramp through them all, I’d be all night. So I’m going to choose one set in particular, which extends a path I’ve been following for the last few minutes, and has to do with individuals.
The first is Auden. At the end of my first year at Oxford, my then-girlfriend and I, who were very keenly taken with the poems of Louis MacNeice, discovered that his (MacNeice’s) literary executor the Greek scholar E. R. Dodds was living in the neighbouring village of Marston. We invited ourselves to visit him, and over the next few months one thing led to another and we became friends. A year or so later, when Auden came to live for the winter in a cottage provided for him by Christ Church, Dodds introduced me to him, explaining that I wrote poems myself.
It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that meeting Auden was for me like meeting God. I’d fallen in love with his poems at school, spent more months than I care to remember writing things that were hopelessly in thrall to his melodies and themes, and although I’d finally convinced myself that we were different sorts of creature in many ways, I still had no doubt that he was the greatest living poet I’d read.
I say this not just to remind myself how young (21) and impressionable (very) I was back then, but also to make a point about the value of hero-worship. When Auden proposed that we have weekly meetings in his cottage – where I would arrive punctually at 4.00 to talk about the poems I’d left with him the week before – the mere fact that we would be spending time together mattered as much or more than whatever advice he might give me. And he did give me good advice, especially about stretching my imagination but not to the extent – he insisted – of breaking any natural laws, and about using the whole toolkit of forms that are available to poets, rather than sticking to free verse. I remember in particular him recommending the various forms of cynghanedd (which means ‘harmony’) used in Welsh-language poetry.
But as I say, it was the influence of his presence that mattered most. The fact that he was kind to me, but also that he was visibly flesh and blood – astoundingly crumpled in his features and his clothes, and also astoundingly messy (coffee-rings and cigarette ash everywhere). Biographers usually point out that by this stage in his life he was unalterably habit-bound – and I noticed that when we had dinner together in Christ Church one night, that the other dons (apart from his friend the German scholar David Luke) all backed away from him so as not to be pinned down by a same torrent of opinion that had already washed over them many times before. But I didn’t care about any of that. It was all new to me, and it was all happening in my presence. It brought poetry off the pages of books. It made it seem inseparable from dailyness – good dailyness (moments of inspiration) as well as bad dailyness (dull routines, regrettable obligations, accidents). It magnificently confirmed and enhanced the sense that Peter Way had instilled in me – the sense that poetry might be a criticism of life, but it was also a part of life. ‘If poetry come not as naturally as leaves to a tree’, Keats says, ‘it had better not come at all’. Exactly so. I thought then and I think now that poetry is a completely natural thing, no matter how hard we might have to work to make it good. Primitive and natural. As natural as breathing. Auden showed me that with an authority I could not have found in anyone else.
When he died the following spring I felt as though someone in my family had died, someone I knew much better than was in fact the case. I also remember thinking, ‘Well, if I never meet another major poet in my life, at least I’ve met him’. But I did meet another major poet – although before I come to him, I need to say something about Alan Hollinghurst, who I think is a major novelist. I met Alan at the beginning of my first year as a graduate student, which should have been my fourth year at Oxford, but was actually my fifth, since I’d taken a year off to have glandular fever. (A year which, like the six months I’d previously taken off school, gave me an invaluable chance to catch up on the reading I hadn’t done as a child.) Alan – who still wrote poetry in those days – had recently won the Newdigate Poetry Prize, which I also won, and I wrote to tell him I’d read his poem and admired it. Our first evening together, for some reason drinking Guinness, which neither of us especially like, was enough to persuade me that I’d never met someone my own age who was so deeply cultured, so rigorous and yet so adventurous in his imagination, so serious but also so hilarious. We soon began showing one another our new work before anyone else saw it – and still do this, as soulmates now, forty years later.
In this respect Alan and I are like life members of a two-man Creative Writing course that formed shortly before the age of Creative Writing courses. We admire a lot of the same writers, we value the same qualities, we dislike the same things, and we think the same things are ridiculous or bad. And we also each like and know things that the other doesn’t – which means we can feel independent as well as shoulder-to-shoulder. If I could give a gift to every young writer, it would be the chance to have such a person in their lives. A person who could be at once ally and inspiration, comfort and challenge.
Which brings me at long last to Philip Larkin. Because I had admired his poems so much when I first read them as a teenager, it’s fair to say that he was a major reason why I applied for the job that brought me to work at the university in Hull in the autumn of 1976, after I had completed my thesis on Edward Thomas. But as I settled in I was greeted by a chorus of voices telling me that I’d never meet him because he hated everyone, and especially hated people who worked in the English Department, because they (we) talked nonsensically about poetry. (He meant literary theory.) When I considered this, and went home to the dismal flat I’d rented in de Gray Street, and compared it to my pretty house by the river in Oxford, I thought I might have made the first big mistake of my life.
But I hadn’t. There were certainly things about Hull that I never got used to, and equally certainly there were things that never got used to me, but I quickly started to feel very loyal to the place. I loved exploring the city and that part of the country. I made some good friends. I learned a lot (about literature and politics and life). And, after about two months of holding-off, I met Larkin. Despite all the dire warnings I had received, we soon became friends.
That’s where I’m going to stop. If it seems as though I’m leaving you with a cliff-hanger – I suppose I am. But it has to be so, because coming to Hull marked the end of the beginning of my life and the start of everything else. My time up to my arrival there had been the making of me. My time after my arrival there – the jobs that followed in other universities and in publishing, the writing of books, the committee-sitting, the Laureateship – has been an elaboration or enlargement. I don’t mean to say that some fundamental things haven’t changed dramatically during this later time. They have. My Korean wife and I now live in Baltimore: believe me, my existence there feels a long way from Hull, and even further from my beginnings in rural Essex. Neither do I mean to say that my thoughts about poetry and my tastes have stayed exactly the same. They’ve expanded and I hope deepened enormously. But I do mean that in my writing and in my self I still feel entranced, informed and exhilarated by my first sight of the world, and hope to remain so for the rest of my life. In my ending will be my beginning.