Aspects of the Work
The interview took place at Richard Berengarten’s house in Cambridge during two hours of a dark January afternoon. When I arrived, Richard showed me into the sitting room of his house off Mill Road. He told me that it had once been a corner shop. An open door gave a glimpse of the writer’s study, whose every available surface was crammed with books, both Richard’s and those of others – his father’s cello in the corner asserting the necessary, creative link between the living and the dead. What had started with a few questions about the release of the new Salt Critical Companion to his writings, as our conversation found fluency and depth, gradually became an exploration and opening out of his works. I made a full transcript of the recording between February and April 2011. The text that follows was created in July 2011 by expanding and modifying the original interview through email correspondence with Richard, in a process of gradual and collaborative editing. So the result combines nearly all the original interview – especially its many-branching interconnected threads – with the richer expansion, detail and clarity that writing involves.
Ruth Halkon: What was your reaction when you heard that the Salt Critical Companion to your writings, with thirty-three contributors from around the world, was being prepared?
Richard Berengarten: I was delighted.
RH: How does it feel to read all these articles about your poems?
RB: The very fact that one has essays written about one’s work gives one the sense that it is ‘out there’. If other people are writing about it, one knows that there’s solidity to the work and that it exists apart from oneself. Also, a good critic might offer slants or perceptions that you didn’t realise were available. So that kind of reading enables a further deepening into your own work. It is very positive, since you’re encouraged to do more, to go deeper and further.
RH: What is it like to have this kind of recognition and attention to your work?
RB: To have some attention is helpful. It encourages one to do still better. To feel that one has no recognition at all can be lonely. Though what one means by ‘recognition’ is interesting in itself. The world of poetry is very diverse and fragmented at the moment. There is a clear poetic Establishment, and this book does not make me a member.
RH: Would you like to join the British Establishment?
RB: Absolutely not.
RH: You said you see yourself as a European poet writing in English. Could you talk a bit more about that?
RB: I first made that statement on the cover-flap of Against Perfection, a selection of poems published in 1999.1
There were several interconnected reasons for making it. First, my sense of myself and my writing has always been international. Second, I have travelled widely through Europe since I was a teenager and have lived and worked for long periods in three other European countries, Greece, Italy, and former Yugoslavia. Third, when I came to that formulation, twelve years ago, I did so reactively. Part of my reaction at that time was against provincialism and insularity, the Little Englandism associated with Philip Larkin for example, the nastier edges of which are racist. This went back to a series of questions I had asked myself at the beginning of the 1990s, soon after I returned from Yugoslavia, when I was doing a lot of thinking about identities and overlapping identities. The process was triggered by a letter from my stepdaughter Jelena, who was originally Yugoslav, but had acquired a British passport when her mother married me eight years previously. Jelena wrote to me when she was nineteen and working in Hong Kong during her gap year. She asked me, “Who am I? I suddenly feel ashamed of being Serbian.” Clearly, she was asking a serious set of questions about her own identity. I had to think long and hard before I answered her.
RH: How did you answer her?
RB: My first answer was: never be ashamed of where you’re from, because that’s where your roots are. However, even to begin to be able to answer adequately, I was obliged to think through her question for myself. So I started puzzling about my own identity and formulated for myself a sort of hierarchy, a tree. At the top was ‘being human’. I was thinking of ‘being human’ in the sense of the Biblical idea of man as ‘a little lower than the angels’ and the Renaissance idea of man as being noble and good, as reflected in Hamlet’s speech “What a piece of work is a man” – where “piece-of-work” has the idea of capolavoro, ‘masterpiece’.
The next thing that struck me was: I’m a poet. Beneath the category ‘human’, for me it was clear that being a poet was the first of my other subcategories. I think that I would have been a poet, whatever my first language or whether I had been born male or female. I view my poetry as a vocation, a destiny. However Romantic that might sound, that’s how I see it. After that, I’m male, not female. I enjoy being a male, but I have female personae in my poems too: the poem’s voice is sometimes a woman’s. Below that, I put the category of ‘English language speaker’, since this is my language. After that come things like my English nationality and my Jewish identity. Things like nationality and religion come lower down in the identity-set for me, unlike for Larkin, whom I think would have put his Englishness at or near the top. Anyway, my Englishness is mediated too through my being Anglo-Jewish, which instantly complicates my relationship to England. Identity to me then is irreducibly multifaceted. It is also, inevitably, hierarchised, morally and ethically.
RH: You’ve talked about your unwillingness to define yourself as an English poet, which implies an insularity and homogeneity that you react against. Surely the classification of yourself as a European poet leaves you open to similar accusations, though on a different scale?
RB: You’re absolutely right. But it took me a while to see that. I have come to see that envisioning and claiming a European identity for myself is in its way just as partial, just as limiting, just as narrowly exclusive, and just as ‘privileged’ in the negative sense, as identifying myself with ‘Englishness’ would have been.
It’s not just that the borders and edges of Europe are porous, or that as a language English is global, but that Eurocentricity is no longer acceptable either, for many reasons. First, the people who live in Europe today come from all over the world, just as the people who live in, say, America do. Poetry is international, universal. Whether oral or written, poetry belongs organically inside every language and every culture. Like people, and like species of animals and plants, poetry is constantly migrating, transforming, mutating. These days, you only have to go along to any one of hundreds of annual international poetry festivals to discover that “no man is an island.” We are all “a part of the main”. Interconnected. To me, the implications of these simple facts are fundamental and far-reaching. They are a good deal more interesting and relevant than the ins-and-outs of literary fashion or any poetic squabblings in this or that particular language that people get het up about. My models for this way of thinking are William Blake, and, in a different way, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and also Walt Whitman – even though Whitman specifically identified his vision of universality with the potential of America, which if you misread it, as many people do, leads to an awful kind of all-American jingoism.
Being interested in universalism necessarily involves love of particulars too. I’ve recently written a short poem hinting at that, as part of my current work-in-progress on the Yijing, entitled ‘In the spirit of Walt Whitman’. In that poem I talk about being interested in localities, villages, small things, the different things that people are and do, across the world – what Blake called “the minute particulars”. This is related to what Hopkins means by “instress” and “inscape”. So, details, localities, particulars, yes. But not nations. We are now all irrevocably international.
RH: You strongly imply those ideas in the poem ‘The Blue Butterfly’, in which you describe your “pink, educated, ironical left hand”, and then your “international bloody human hand”, which is sanctified by the figure of the butterfly sitting on your finger. Why is the blue butterfly so significant, and why did you choose the hand as a synecdoche for your whole identity?
RB: The little blue butterfly that sat on my finger outside the war museum at Kragujevac came out of the blue, in every sense, and it was a life-changing experience. The butterfly ‘chose me’, in a sense – I felt, at the precise moment that it happened, that I was being ‘called’ to write. The imprint lasted twenty years, until I’d finished The Blue Butterfly. A long-lasting imprint, for such a tiny creature.
RH: Could you say more about the significance of the hand?
RB: The lyric, ‘The blue butterfly’, came straight out. One is gifted with such a poem. When it happens, it’s the purest inspiration one can have. I wrote it in the evening and, come morning, I didn’t want to touch it. That was in 1985. The theme of hands goes further back for me, though. In 1979, when I was in my mid-30s, I’d gone to New York, arriving on St Patrick’s Day to stay with a friend I had met in Venice, Johnny MacLean, and his wife. It was my first time in New York and the very first time I had ever experienced jetlag. We had gone out for dinner and drinks, and I was woken up in the middle of the night by a police siren. I was in a state of heightened excitement and, probably straight out of a dream, I wrote down some lines about my hands – all starting with the lines, “these hands are . . .” as a sort of pounding, drumming refrain. Curiously the motif of hands eventually found its way into ‘The blue butterfly’. But not in any deliberate or deliberative way: the insect settling on my hand was a datum, a given, a gift.
More curiously still, that process is still going on. Later, I gradually, worked out a form for a sequence of poems about hands: a ten-line lyric, divided into two stanzas of five lines. Ten lines, ten fingers: two stanzas, two hands. I’m currently working on a series of chapbooks, each of which contains twenty of these hand poems. They’ve been published by a small press in New Zealand called the ‘Earl of Seacliff’. The series is gradually evolving into a book whose overall title will be Manual. The book will consist of the first hundred poems from the chapbooks.
Hands are fascinating: they are the agents of the will, of the mind. They make, create and destroy; they play musical instruments and operate machines, which are themselves all extensions of hands. Hands are important metonyms for the whole human endeavour. I’m also fascinated by the chakra points in hands, and recently I’ve been learning taiji and getting into some Tantric and Daoist practices. Hands communicate energy. . . . And, curiously, it was only much later that I consciously connected the hands in Manual with the “writing hand” as the ‘site’ of The Blue Butterfly. So human hands, I discovered, are a recurrent preoccupation in my writing.
RH: In the poem ‘Tree’, you use the tree as a metonym, a symbol, in the way that you use hands – relating it to Adam Kadmon and Kabbalistic traditions, to Christian traditions, and then to Hindu and Tantric ideas. Why does this poem, and indeed why do many of your poems, have such a range of religious imagery? Do you consider yourself to be a religious poet?
RB: I do, in a way. Blake wrote that “all religions are one.” If you put ‘all religions’ together, you create a composite picture of the first attempts of humans to find meaning. ‘Religio’, the Latin antecedent of the word ‘religion’, means ‘re-binding. The Indo-European root of the word ‘religion’ is the same as for words like ‘yoke’, ‘join’ and ‘conjugal’. The poet is always trying to ‘yoke’, to ‘join’, to find connectivity, and that is engrained in the structure – and stuff – of metaphor itself, connecting different semantic fields. And of language itself, and of experience itself. Everything is connected and the poet realises these connections. Pound reminded himself of that, quasi-tragically, at the end of his Cantos: “It coheres all right – even if my notes do not cohere.” As Wordsworth says in The Prelude, “I mean to speak/ Of that interminable building reared/ By observation of affinities/ In objects where no brotherhood exists /To passive minds.” “Observation of affinities” will inevitably result in perception of connectivity, yoking: re-ligio. As is assumed in the entire endeavours of science and mathematics, there is pattern, and there are inherent, intrinsic laws governing pattern. This sense of pattern, connectedness, connectivity, is inherent in all poetry. The physicist David Bohm calls this “implicate order."
So my interest in religion is nothing to do with pietism or holiness but in the way it brings ideas, thoughts, images, phenomena together, because that’s what I think poetry is all about. If you don’t look at the great religions, you’re missing out. The great religious texts of the world have all inspired great poetry: some of The Bible and the Vedas, not to mention the epic of Gilgamesh, and also the brilliant Daoist teachings that are both religion and philosophy, especially the Laozi and the Zhuangzi. It seems stupid to limit oneself and one’s work by not looking at religions.
RH: How does this interest in different religions link to your earlier claim that we are all irrevocably international?
RB: My interest in different religions, as well as languages and cultures, suggests not only a sense of identity that ‘nationality’ can ever quite encompass, but a composite identity I would call universalist, in that I see that poetry is relevant to everybody on the planet – of course operating through their particular culture and history, but not limited by those particulars. I think the most important thing in the twenty-first century is humanity. As I’ve said, I think this has to be combined with what Blake called the “minute particulars”.
RH: What about one’s sense of ‘rootedness’ – belonging?
RB: A well-explored and conventional idea is that a good or great poet needs to be ‘rooted’ in the ‘soil’ of the country in which he or she was born, and that his or her poems, like those of, say, Whitman, William Carlos Williams, William Butler Yeats, or the plays of Synge, must therefore celebrate that land. Williams writes a book called In the American Grain. And Hugh MacDiarmid celebrates this kind of patriotism with a four-line lyric: “The rose of all the world is not for me. / I want for my part/ Only the little white rose of Scotland/ That smells sharp and sweet – and breaks the heart.” The sweeter smell of this kind of patriotism is, of course, something we can all relish – despite its sometimes teetering on the edge of sentimentality. We can respect it and we indulge in it. But the negative side of patriotism is nationalism, which attributes the particular qualities of that group of people to the soil – and this mentality is precisely the one that can end up with racism vis-à-vis whichever people who don’t belong to that group. Worse still, the power of ‘soil’ leads to that of ‘blood and soil’ (Blut und Boden). We know very well, and to our cost, what the Nazis made of that.
More than that, I think we need to move beyond it, beyond nationality, beyond nationalism, which we know is dangerous. The origin of both words, incidentally, is in Latin, nascere, ‘to be born’. The Slavonic languages have a more or less identical pattern: In Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian, for example (all of which used to be called ‘Serbo-Croat’), the word for ‘nation’ is narod and for nationality narodnost. The word rod means ‘birth’. So your parents are your roditelji and your birthday is your rodjendan. But narod means not only ‘nation’ but also ‘people’, ‘tribe’, ‘race’ and even ‘religious group’. So narodnost comes to mean, in practice, something like ‘ethnicity’. But consider what extremes of violent emotion and inhumane actions were provoked in the wars that broke up Yugoslavia in the 1990s, because people’s thinking, belief systems and behaviour were actually rooted in those terms – and limited by them. I lived in former Yugoslavia, as you know. We should retrieve warning lessons from what happened there.
RH: If that’s the case, then, who should you as a poet speak to, if you cannot speak to and for just ‘the English’?
RB: I’m not so sure that we can be sure exactly who the ‘English’ are these days. And anyway, the English language speaks to vast numbers of people across the globe. As it is, I want to speak to and for all kinds of people. The main editor to the Critical Companion, Norman Jope, wrote in his introduction that my work operates within many different “canons”, and I’m delighted with this observation. I go to Greece and my book of poems dedicated to George Seferis, Black Light, has been translated ‘back’ into Greek’ and a Greek writer says that it gives her a frisson of her own childhood. It could be argued that my poems translated into Serbian belong to a Serbian and south Slavonic as much as a English Serbophile (or ‘Yugophilic’) tradition. There’s an Italian writer, Mario Nicolao, who says that I’m a Mediterranean poet; and a Jewish poet, Stephen Wilson, who says that my Blue Butterfly celebrates Jewish identity in a new, proud way. Nobody has said that I’m particularly ‘English’, but I think some of my poems, such as ‘Croft Woods’, are very English indeed. I’m now working on a single long sequence of poems, a long-standing project, which is based on the Yijing and is intended as homage to the Chinese cultural tradition. Does that give you an idea of where I’m at? I would call myself a ‘universalist’ if one could take out of that term any suggestion of ego-tripping. I’ve explored the notion of universality in several texts, most recently in the epigraph to the new edition of The Manager,2
and at the end of the introduction to the “Volta” Project’.3
I would advocate ‘universalism’ as the next move that needs to be made in the wake of post-modernism.
RH: You write in The Blue Butterfly about the dead, who are voiceless, and the experience of walking on their skulls buried beneath the soil, and about how your poetry gives them a voice. You also mention the way that your poetry gives voice to those anonymous dead in mass graves around the world. Then, in your essay, ‘A Grove of Trees and a Grove of Stones’, you write about the dangers of severing the connection between the living and the dead – the severing of this connection allowed the Nazis and Serbians to massacre others. You say that, in order to avoid such atrocities we should remember the dead, remember the past and avoid repeating their mistakes. Then, in the poem, ‘The Voice in the Garden’, you also write about their connection to the living: “The dead have not gone elsewhere. / They are here inside us.” In this way, you seem to suggest that our past, the past of our ancestors, is integrally bound up with – bound into – our present. Have I got that right?
RB: Yes, you have. Why are the dead central and important in my work? One of the strands in my relation to the dead has to do with post-Holocaust (post-Shoah) consciousness. I first discovered the facts of the Holocaust at the age of thirteen, when I was taken to a theatre production of The Diary of Anne Frank by my mother. (I’ve written an essay, a kind of personal memoir, on this, which hasn’t yet been published, entitled ‘“My” Anne Frank’.) That event coincided with the onset of puberty and with a series of shifts and changes in all the outward and inward aspects of my life. One is very open and impressionable at that age. The play affected me profoundly, it moved me, incomparably. The fact that all those people were captured and killed spoke to me very directly, as it would speak to anybody, but particularly too, because of my Jewish identity. I found myself thinking that Anne Frank was a fellow of mine, my kin. And then I found myself writing to her in the teenage journal that I started, soon after seeing the play and after reading the Diary. It was the beginning of my poetry. The dead at that point seemed living to me, and I felt the burden of those people who had been killed for no reason other than that they were Jewish. Since they could no longer speak for themselves, who would speak for them?
Later, I read English at Cambridge. One of the great things about the Cambridge degree (as you know) is that it gives you a sense of the historical panorama of English Literature from around the time of Chaucer to the present day. You gain a sense of tradition, and the moment you start exploring tradition, you begin to understand what the dead have contributed to us. To me at that time, Eliot’s essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ seemed to hit the nail on the head: a new writer modifies tradition; therefore tradition is alive in that writer. So, when I was an undergraduate, I began to understand that if I were to become a poet myself, I would have to absorb that tradition. And one way you communicate with the dead is through the act of reading. Let’s say I’m reading George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. That book is immediate to me, that dead writer’s ideas and thoughts enter my present. The great lines of poetry from the past are very much presences for me.
At that time I also started thinking about how we use past, present and future, in a linear frame, to set up distinctions that present a particular version of reality. But the presence of the past is as important as the pastness of the past, and the future lurks in the present as well. George Seferis, who is a master for me, says “the living are not enough for me … / I have to ask the dead / in order to go on farther.” Sometimes contemporary discussion or news can seem banal and a bit meaningless, compared to the voices of the dead, the voices of great poets for example.
RH: Tell me more about this poetic communion between the living and the dead?
RB: When it comes to poetry, and its transmission and absorption, I sometimes have the curious sense of linear time being set in reverse, of time’s arrow taking a different set of directions: the sense that, somehow, poetry is addressed not only to readers in the present and future – but that there’s a curious way in which poetry is addressed to the dead too. I’ve seen this happening at funerals: I remember a daughter of a man who had died standing up and turning to the coffin as she spoke – she said ‘you’ to the coffin – as Shakespeare’s Antony does to Julius Caesar – just as if her father was alive. And at that moment, so he was for her: his presence was alive to her and in her. I wonder if the realities of present, past and future are far more intricately interconnected than we think. That is a huge subject: on the one hand it takes in issues developed in post-quantum-theory physics and on the other the theory of synchronicity.
A good recent book on this from the point of view of a quantum physicist is Huw Price’s Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point. He offers different models for the directionality of time’s flow. This is a respected and tough-minded academic philosopher, not a mystic. As for Jung’s concept of synchronicity, I think this is of equal importance for our understanding of the world. There’s a mass of exciting literature on this, including books by Marie-Louise von Franz and, more recently, Roderick Main and Joseph Cambray. I think poets should be alert and alive to these issues. For one thing, they’re exciting. Our present scientific understanding both of how consciousness works and of how events and phenomena in the world are correlated is in its infancy. We need to bring together the discoveries of physics and of psychology. The poet’s role is crucial. Incidentally, you mentioned The Blue Butterfly, and the way that it is connected with the dead. As I’ve mentioned, that book was based on a powerful experience of synchronicity. The book is consciously and articulately addressed to the living, the dead and the unborn.
RH: Your friend Octavio Paz said something similar: “For the first time in our history, we are contemporaries of all humanity.” Why do you think that this idea is so prominent, has become so relevant now, rather than, say, a hundred years ago?
RB: That’s a good question. And your gloss on that statement of Octavio’s from The Labyrinth of Solitude accords with my own reading of it. I’m not sure whether Octavio was actually intending to include the dead in his phrase “all humanity”, but for myself I think “all humanity” must include the dead and the unborn, as well as the living. He may or may not have meant the dead.4
RH: The phrase “contemporaries of all of humanity” suggests that.
RB: Yes, it does. Octavio wrote that around 1949. In the nineteenth century it became fashionable to collect antiquities and folklore. All over Europe, you had people like the Grimm brothers in Germany, Vuk Karadžić in Serbia and Francis Child in the British Isles, collecting folklore and folk songs and oral traditions, which at the time they called ‘antiquities’. Through the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth century, up to the time of James Frazer, and far beyond, the notion of the ‘primitive’ comes into scholarship, especially the new disciplines of anthropology and psychology, as a core ideological element. You find it in Edward Tylor’s Primitive Culture in the 1870s and even as late as Eric Hobsbaum’s hugely overrated and superficial studies on banditry published nearly a century later, in 1959 and 2000 – the assumption that we Europeans or Westerners are unquestionably more ‘civilised’, and so implicitly ‘more human’, than those ‘primitives’ whom we study. But Lévi-Strauss exploded that kind of thinking in his book La Pensée Sauvage. In English this book is known as The Savage Mind, which is almost as unfortunate in its pejorative associations as a title like ‘The Primitive Mind’ would have been. But the English fails to capture the far richer double entendre of the original. In French, pensée means both ‘thought’ and ‘pansy’, while ‘sauvage’ means not only ‘savage’ or ‘primitive’ but also ‘wild’ as distinct from ‘tame’. So the French title is rich and beautiful. It also means ‘The Wild Pansy’.
RH: So what changed?
RB: Around the time of Lévi-Strauss, there was a realisation that so-called ‘primitives’ are people of no less intelligence, no less human than ‘we’ are. And this central idea has been far more fully developed since the Second World War – particularly in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust – especially through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. The idea of humanitas, of anthropos, of covečnost, čovečanstvo, of mankind, had been growing for centuries, of course, but this is when it is first articulated and adopted, as it were, universally, by the community of nations outside of particular religious creeds: that we’re all human, and there’s no group of people less human than any other. In the core of the Communist tradition there’s also this fine belief that everyone is equal, that everyone deserves an equal chance. This is a profound discovery, a moral advance – despite the fact that Communists have done vile things, that vile persecutions were committed under Communist regimes, just as under Fascist ones – and under democracies too. If you think back through the history of colonialism, for example of the treatment of Maoris and Aborigines by the English, of millions of people in Africa by the Europeans and north Americans, of the Evenks and Evens and other Asian peoples by Turkic tribes, and then by Russians, of all indigenous Americans by white European settlers – the length of the list of persecutions and exploitations is just horrendous. The core of this behaviour is a mindset that condones the treatment of ‘other’ people as though they were sub-human. But, clearly, they’re not. Any kind of persecution of particular groups isn’t just morally wrong and stupid and evil; it represents an intellectual and imaginative failure – to understand that humanity involves all humans. My humanness and your humanness are linked. Archbishop Desmond Tutu says this when he talks about the concept and practice of ‘Ubuntu’ in South Africa: Actual practice of the idea of ‘all humanity being one’ is relatively new.
RH: Isn’t the idea of all humanity being one similar to the Christian idea, love thy neighbour as you love yourself?
RB: Who is one’s neighbour? The history of Christianity makes it clear that some neighbours were considerably more neighbourly than others. Now, though, it is anybody who is human. Anybody and everybody. One of the great things about humanity at the moment is that we see ourselves as part of the same human race.
Not only that, every poet has some interlocutor in mind, some ideal reader or listener. For me, incidentally, an interlocutor is by definition singular, for two reasons. First, because poetic communication is always necessarily directed out of the fulness, the completeness, of one person’s humanity into the fulness/completeness of another’s. Secondly, because the act of receiving a poem can only be done by an individual, in the core, as it were, of an individual’s uniqueness. So, with this in mind, I wouldn’t want to suggest that a poet should write for anyone he or she doesn’t want to write for. But even taking that point, I think it’s a pity if a poet of our time doesn’t grasp the full power and gentleness of the word ‘human’ in its fullest and most recent range of connotations. This idea first surfaced spontaneously and with full force for me in a short poem I wrote entitled ‘For the New Year 1976’, to celebrate the last quarter of the 20th century.
RH: Your poem ‘Avebury’ begins with an “ancestorless” man standing among the stones of the stone circle. Through a progression using sculpture – you begin with the Willendorf Venus, via the Nike of Samothrace to Michelangelo’s Prisoners – you draw a path through history, connecting the ancestorless men to his ancestors by showing him the past.
RB: That’s a lovely way of putting it. I think I was really feeling my way then, I was magnetised by the images. I couldn’t have put it like that, but it’s an excellent observation. By “ancestorless”, by the way, I meant something like ‘without any deep sense of history’.
RH: One of the contributors to the Companion mentions that they’re all sort of faceless: the Prisoners are half-formed, they have no features, and the Willendorf Venus’s face is covered by her hair.
RB: This is a critic and poet called Neli Moody. And it is an interesting essay.
RH: Do you think her observation is correct, and if so, is it significant? Are you aiming at some kind of universalisation or, rather, universality, by missing out the features that would identify these sculptures as individuals? Or is something else going on?
RB: Do you mean because of the facelessness of the Prisoners and the Nike?
RH: Yes, and of the Venus too.
RB: Well, all of them do have their faces or heads hidden or cut off or lost, though I don’t think I was in any way consciously selecting them on that basis. The two “musicians” in the last of this series of five fragmented sonnets that are embedded into the poem are the Cycladic flute player and lyre player, marble figures, both in the National Museum in Athens. That Cycladic style is very refined, very abstracted, and the figures have an almost Brancusi-like quality. Their heads are there, but no features are visible. [RB shows me a plaster replica of the Willendorf Venus.] The Willendorf Venus is very different: she’s much more fulsome, physical, earthy. She has her head bowed over her breasts, tucked down towards them, almost nestling there. She seems completely self-involved in her own innerness; the whole of her is intent on the fertility aspect.
Rachel Levy’s book The Gate of Horn was an important source for me in writing ‘Avebury’, especially the chapter in that book on ‘The Mother Goddess and the Dead’, from which a lot of my ideas and images in the poem are developed. The patterning on the Willendorf Venus’s bowed head obviously represents hair, which has been wound around her head, and possibly plaited; and the style is called ‘beehive’ hair. She has no features, because her head is bowed and what’s being concentrated on are the breasts, the hips, as in other figurines of that period, like the Venus of Dolnì Vestonìce – a photo of which incidentally is on the cover of Manual 4, together with my hand next to the original sculpture in the museum in Brno. These statuettes, from around thirty thousand years ago, are obviously goddess figures. Both Erich Neumann and Marija Gimbutas have explored these figures in major studies of the fertility goddess. Are you saying I’m trying to reclaim some sort of individuality, or to deny it, with the sequence of ‘fragmented sonnets’ on these figures?
RH: You do give them some individual features, for example the Nike with her “incredible arrogant breasts”. She’s ready to fly. You give her a kind of personality. But does the fact that she’s faceless mean that she’s something many people could project themselves onto and identify with?
RB: I’m not sure about that. I’m not sure that that idea was conscious enough in me at the time I wrote those little pieces for me to be able to say now with certainty that I was connecting facelessness with some kind of ‘universality’. If anything, I would have thought that if I’d been doing that, it would have been a rather reductive kind of universality. The face, and especially the eyes in the face, are after all the keys to our humanness – according to Emmanuel Levinas anyway – and I’d go along with his ideas concerning the face.
Perhaps it’d be interesting to explore another way of looking at it too. At that time, I was exploring a kind of fragmented, paratactic, gnomic diction, derived partly from Paz and partly from Charles Olson – and further back, of course, from Pound’s Cantos. In retrospect, it’s clearer to me now – even if only a little clearer – that the approach I followed in writing ‘Avebury’ was to allow statements to well up through me, out into the poem, rather than imposing too much conscious patterning on them or over them. Which is not to say they weren’t closely ‘worked’, but rather that I didn’t analyse (i.e. over-analyse) them.
Rather than the face, what I was more strongly interested in those figures, as a male, was the female anatomy. The line, “incredible, arrogant breasts” to me is erotic – the male desiring the full femaleness of that figure. These are fertility figurines: they’re meant to be erotic.
RH: You offset that by referring to Michelangelo’s ‘Prisoners’, and their “genitals / trapped / under unhewn rock”. Isn’t the key thing about them the fact that they’re half-formed, “trapped in unhewn rock” – almost as if they were a half-formed poem that has been discarded?
RB: I’m not sure if they’re ‘half-formed’; I rather think of them as being fully formed already, but under or within the rock, as it were, so ‘not yet expressed’. I see them as being imprisoned, “trapped”, not allowed out, or rather, not yet allowed out. For me this has a decidedly powerful, direct sexual meaning. The trapped genitalia means what it says: that their sexuality is trapped too. Michelangelo had no qualms about exposing male genitalia – and celebrating them explicitly – in many other sculptures. But here, what’s true of the figure’s genitalia is also true of his head. This is how I interpret his sculptures in this particular series. Here, both head and genitals are trapped. Two aspects of creative energy are confined: the sexual/procreative and the intellectual/spiritual. So I think you’re right in suggesting that these forms can also be read as statements about the artist’s struggle to ‘free’ his figure from its matrix of rock – if that is in fact what you are suggesting. And couldn’t these figures also carry an implicit historical meaning, long before any full-scale republican movements ever appear on the European scene – I mean the political and social struggle for freedom?
RH: Yes, these figures could indeed signify the struggle of the artist to free the idea from his brain and reveal it on paper or on canvas or wall or in stone – and the failure inherent in this struggle to realise the artist’s conceptions.
RB: The fragmented sonnet about Michelangelo’s Prisoners is balanced by another about the two phalloi on Delos. On this Cycladic island, as part of the ancient temple, there are two huge phalloi on top of columns. One is proud and erect, rampant, but the other has been cut off. Presumably it’s been vandalised at some point over the last two and a half thousand years. In spring 1968, when I went to the island and saw these figures, there was a viper coiled near them, rearing its head and flickering its tongue. The entire experience was decidedly, powerfully phallic. As for the phallos that was cut off, it reminded me again that symbolically castration and beheading are related. There are various myths about a god being beheaded or castrated, Attis, Adonis, etc., and it’s thought that these are variants of the same motif, both of them to do with the cutting off of life – whether of the male individual himself or of his capacity to procreate – and the theme of the seasonal sacrifice of the young god to the chthonic female forces, to ensure nature’s fertility.
RH: This discussion takes me to another Michelangelo sculpture, which appears in your poem ‘Croft Woods’, the Rondanini Pietà. You describe this figure as being “dug” out of the rock. Craig Woelfel says that this image suggests that, although part of the sculpture comes from the artist, the rest is already inherent in the material. Does this apply to poetry too? Do the words come from someone or something else?
RB: I think there’s a Platonic element in the image of the sculpture. I’m no longer a Platonist, if ever I was one, but Plato’s core idea that in matter there are encapsulated ‘perfect’ forms is powerful. The further idea that we extrapolate from that, even though Plato himself dismissed artists and poets, is that it’s the artist’s and poet’s job to ‘release’ the form, which is the poem or sculpture. It’s the same with the Michelangelo sculpture. It’s the sculptor’s job to chip away until the sculpture is released. As, for example, in his David, the perfect epitome of personal, physical and political freedom. Is that what you’re talking about?
RH: Yes, and the way this relates to poetry.
RB: I do think there is an element of that. That the poet at work is motivated by a “blessed rage for order”, as Wallace Stevens put it in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, – “order” to him being something that is both “implicate”, i.e. already out there, as well as in here, in-hering, in the Bohmian sense, but also that needs to be reached for, to be reached out for and attained in the form of the poem that emerges. That is, of course, if it can ever be attained at all. To Stevens, the order he rages after is implicitly the achieved, resultant form that emerges out of the matrix it has been embedded in. And the matrix in that great poem of his is not rock but the sea. The next lines, the last lines of the poem, go like this: “The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,/ Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,/ And of ourselves and of our origins,/ In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.” That’s just fantastic! We’re a long way from sculpture here. But the idea that the poem, or any kind of made artefact, emerges from its matrix, is identical to what we’ve just been saying vis-à-vis sculpture. This is consonant, too, with organicist models of the processes of artistic creation and scientific discovery both beginning in gestation, and a sort of self-brooding, way below the level of conscious awareness.
RH: Yet the lines in this poem “She was the single artificer of the world/ In which she sang”, suggest another idea, of the poet as an active creator, a maker, consciously and skilfully shaping the material rather than following it.
RB: Yes. The image of the matrix suggests other metaphors you could follow too. For example – to follow that metaphor itself, that is, of ‘following’ – the artistic process does consist in ‘following’: I’ve used the title ‘Following’ for a group of poems in Book With No Back Cover with precisely that idea in mind, and it’s one that’s central to my poetics. One’s not imposing one’s self on the material; one is actually working with the material, through it, in fellowship and harmony with it, coaxing it, blending with it, asking it what it wants to do and how and where it wants to go.
Hands are important here too, as in any artistic process, because they aren’t pushing, but feeling their way and allowing something to move and grow. The carpenter goes with the grain of the wood – hence another aspect of that lovely title In the American Grain by William Carlos Williams. So you follow the organic qualities of the material. ... I talked to the sculptor Rosie Musgrave about this and the same principle applies. She works in and with the grain and texture of the stone. She knows all about stone. The different qualities of particular kinds of stone, and the uniqueness of each individual block. That sculpture is one of hers. [RB points to a symmetrical stone sculpture in an alcove in the room, a circular form set in a square, measuring around 46 cm in height and length, and with a depth of 8 cm. On the side, some words rise out of the stone: THE OCEAN REFUSES NO RIVER.] Out of this rock she has carved an immaculate form. We’re back with Plato, in a way. Expressed in Jungian terms, the poem itself is an archetypal configuration, and the process of writing is a clarification, blowing away the mists, verbiage and confusion – and the surrounding scaffolding or envelope or shell – until the poem’s form is revealed. Hatched. As if the form is what the poem itself wants to assert, through the poet.
I keep on finding this in other works as well. Three images come to mind, one musical, one architectural, and one scientific. The first could be any Bach fugue. It’s not just that in Bach, content and form are married in the purest possible way: it’s that their content is itself perfect form and vice versa. If you think of some tunes or motifs in music, there was a time before they existed. I’ve written about this in a poem in Book With No Back Cover. The other examples are both here in Cambridge. One is King's College Chapel. If you look at the fan-vaulted ceiling and the way that everything connects and coheres, it’s hard to imagine a time before it ever existed. It seems eternal, there’s some kind of mathematical perfection to it, as though it had always been there – as though it was ‘discovered’ rather than ‘built’ or ‘made’. In nature there are these fantastic forms. The third example is the structure of DNA. It’s a discovery, the double helix, it’s there already and it’s beautiful, and very simple. After a discovery like this has happened, one thinks gosh, it’s always been there. I think that applies to works of art. Imagine a time before Shakespeare’s Hamlet was written. It’s almost as though once it’s written it enters into some sort of space that is, as it were, elemental, fundamental, as far as consciousness is concerned. I think when one is writing a poem – what one is trying to do when one is writing a poem, even a small poem – is like that. As another example, take ‘Life’ by George Herbert. It’s a gem of a poem, it’s perfect, it’s faultless, flawless, as if it had always ‘been there’. Ah, here’s that poem about music that I was looking for. It’s from a sequel to The Manager. [RB reads ‘Once, hearing music’ from Book With No Back Cover.]
RH: You do evoke that feeling of awe that one sometimes faces in the presence of great art or music – the disbelief that any mortal could make this, contrasted with the knowledge that he did.
RB: What I wanted to add here is that the key to all these patternings, what they all have in common – music, architecture, sculpture, poetry, scientific discovery, the structure of matter itself – is ultimately mathematical. Spencer-Brown in Laws of Form talks about the way we think of mathematics as being able to reveal the structure of the world.5
Yeats wrote: “Measurement began our might. / Forms a stark Egyptian thought, / Forms that gentler Phidias wrought.” These lines are to do with the way that massively powerful and geometrically perfect forms and harmonies were discovered in ancient Egypt and then modified and humanised in Greek sculpture. Again: geometry, music, architecture, sculpture. We can add poetry, because poetry is based on rhythm and measurement too. ‘Metre’ means measurement.
Marie-Louise von Franz follows Jung in thinking that number is itself archetypal. You can’t actually touch ‘number’. But every child over the age of four knows what it is. Number is out there. Numbers, plural, are out there. You can count them on your fingers, your digits. But number is digital and virtual and abstract too. It runs computers. It’s in your head. It links the inner and outer worlds, the physical and psychic realities. Roy Harris, who was Professor of General Linguistics at Oxford, considered number to be magical.6
And von Franz links number both with the physics of time and with patterns of synchronicity in ways that no contemporary poets, at least none that I’ve come across, have even started to study seriously. I find all these connections very exciting. And Jung’s theory of synchronicity is of course rooted in the Yijing, and largely derived from his studies of this ancient Chinese masterpiece . ... These are some of the factors that motivate and underpin my poetry. The book I’m working on at present, a kind of homage to the Yijing, is tied up with all these issues. It’s had an even longer gestation than other long poems, like The Blue Butterfly, which have taken from ten to twenty years from their first arrival to their completion and final publication
RH: Why such a long time? Is the evolution of a poem a long gestation and labour with a gradual birth?
RB: The gestation-and-birth imagem works very well. And here, I think there are several other things worth saying. First, there’s no prescribed term and I’m not in a hurry. Nor am I so desperately bothered about what goes on in the contemporary poetic world, or so involved in it or dependent on it, that I feel I have to get a volume out every year or so, to keep up a presence on the literary scene, or in time to go in for this or that prize or competition, or anything of that kind. In that sense at least, the pace I work at and the way I work is determined by patterns I create and impose on myself. Secondly, if one is aiming at durability, and also to produce long works, both of which I am, one needs to give oneself space and time.
In many ways I think of myself as a lyric poet, I’m quite interested in making short poems. But I’m also interested in long poems, and that’s why the poems about hands, that I mentioned earlier, form such an elaborate sequence. Many of the great poets have written long poems – Browning, Tennyson, Milton, Eliot, and many many more – and those are the people I model myself on, rather than the Larkins or the Seamus Heaneys of this world. A third factor, which isn’t self-imposed but the result of necessity, is simply to do with the exigencies of living. Like most people, I have to earn a living; I don’t have a private income. When you have a day job, a money job, you’re constantly being interrupted. So you have to store stuff rather than simply writing it out in white heat. You have to plan your writing times, and treasure them. And you have to build interruption itself into the writing process.
RH: Do you welcome the interruptions of having a day job, an everyday life, or do you see them as a distraction from your poetry?
RB: Interruption seems to me a very interesting thing. It can be very negative, but there is a way in which artistic creation needs to allow interruption, since what interrupts is, by definition, spontaneous and ‘other’. Interruption, I think, is linked in with the notion of the guest and the host – and Derrida is very good on their interdependence, incidentally, in his book Of Hospitality, co-authored with Anne Defourtmentelle. The guest who is invited in is someone who is welcomed as an intrusion. But the distinction between intruder and guest is complex and subtle. For one thing, you have to be careful about interruptions, including self-interruptions, since they can distract you from what you’re doing, but sometimes they can be very valuable.
RH: What do you do when a line of a poem or an idea is itself the interruption – appearing while you go about your money job, or during other aspects of your life. How do you ready yourself for this guest?
RB: From one point of view, I aim to write a great deal of the time because I want to allow the ideas to surface, quickly and without much, if any, premeditation or planning. You have to catch ideas on the wing, and while they’re hot – even if it’s not always in white heat – otherwise it’s too late. Ideas and themes get forgotten and disappear. So I’m always jotting down notes and ideas and lines, and sometimes quick drafts of entire poems. I have thousands and thousands of notes of this kind. I record them in big spiral-bound notebooks and have a massive collection of these notebooks by now. This is my raw material. I keep one of these notebooks by my bed in case I wake up with an idea in the morning or in the middle of the night. The material that goes down includes records of dreams. Quite a few poems of mine come out of a dream-matrix. And I always take a notebook with me whenever I go out, and especially when I travel. Travelling itself stimulates the flow of inner images and ideas because outer images go flashing by very quickly and they interact energetically with one’s inner themes and motifs. At first one notices what one is interested in but then one also gets surprised by things that one hadn’t noticed or expected to notice or thought of noticing. The point is that these inflows are interruptions too. So, as I’ve suggested, interruptions are positive as well as negative and one has to treat them as a host treats guests. Even so, this kind of gathering in is only part of it. Actual composition involves slow, quiet, patient and careful solitary work on and with this raw material.
RH: Can an entire book be an ‘interruption’?
RB: One book that was written more or less in white heat one summer was the sequence Black Light. It consisted of twelve poems, and much later on I added one that I’d written at the same time but hadn’t at first been sure of, to make thirteen poems. Curiously, the short prose piece I’d been unsure of at first and had thought of rejecting turned out later to be the part that clinched and lifted the whole set.7
So that book itself arrived as an interruption: that is, as something unexpected and sudden. I managed to keep most other interruptions away at that time – that is, further interruptions of the first interruption – in order to maintain the impetus and flow. If you’re constantly being interrupted or are interrupting yourself, it’s hard to maintain any kind of flow at all. I’m very good at self-interruption. A woman I had a relationship with many years ago called it my ‘W.E.P.’, by which she meant my ‘Work Evasion Programme’. It was a good way of putting it, and I worked that, ironically, into The Manager. I think we’ve all got our work evasion programmes, and I’m very lazy in that way. But any long work inevitably involves interruption, so the ability to hold something in your mind over a long period is essential in all composition. If it’s a long thing, an ambitious thing, and you have a day job, you can’t write it to deadlines as a journalist would. When all is said and done, there are no deadlines in poetry, apart from the inner ones you impose yourself.
RH: Could you talk to me about the poetic voices your poems use? Many of your poems take on the voices and identities of others. I was thinking about the poem ‘Don’t send bread tomorrow’, in which you adopt the voices of those who know they are about to be killed at Kragujevac. Often there are multiple voices, none of which can be identified as your own. In contrast, the poem ‘May’ seems intensely personal and I found myself close to tears when you were describing your sister Sarah, who was born deaf, dumb and blind, and so unable to react to your father’s music. How does it feel to put such an intensely private poem in the public domain?
RB: The voices of others coming into the first poem you mention are actually documented voices from victims, and I retranslated the little messages they left and then wove them into the poem, as though they were a kind of chorus. It has just occurred to me as I say this, there’s a chorus of female voices in Murder in the Cathedral, which was a play I acted in at school and was profoundly moved by. You have consecutive individual voices coming out of the chorus – I’ve never thought of that influence before. I think the voices of others are important because one is following them, one is receiving them. Also, I quite often have a sense of the otherness of the poetic voice that is welling through me, the othernesses of the poems that come to me. There are many voices. I work a lot with dreams. Some of these voices come to me from dreams and I remember them. The voices of others enlarge the scope of a poem and humanise it. Nothing bores me more than those awful poems that are absolutely ubiquitous these days in nearly all types of writing, from the avant garde to the traditionalists – the poems that go ‘I, I, I’.
The insistent dominant ‘I’ can be an irritant and often the site – and indication – of a bad poem. And bad faith. A good poem often involves an opening to the voice of the other, not an insistence on the ‘I’.
RH: What about ‘May’? That’s an ‘I’ poem.
RB: True. I think ‘May’ was fairly rare for me because on the whole I don’t go for ‘confessional’ poems. I rejected the Lowell, Berryman, and Plath tradition, the ‘I, I, I’ stuff, when I was quite young, for reasons I’ve just mentioned. And anyway, I don’t go along with the ideas that a poet should be thought of as a patient confessing shameful secrets or a penitent confessing sins, any more than a reader should be construed as a therapist, or counsellor, or priest . . . But something welled up in that poem, ‘May’, which was bigger than me. Once again, that poem, rather than being to do with opening up my privacies, I think of as connecting with the voices of the dead. And I don’t feel any sense that what is going on in the poem involves revealing autobiographical detail that may be shameful or better kept secret or hidden.
There’s also a way in which the exploration of subjectivity may reach a point when you touch the intersubjective. When I was a Cambridge undergraduate in the early 1960s, I went to F. R. Leavis’s lectures. Leavis had an idea that he called ‘the Third Realm’. There’s the first realm, that of objectivity – science deals with that. Then there’s the second realm, that of subjectivity, for example, dreams. The third realm is that of literature, and that’s a realm that combines subjectivity and objectivity. Now, while I think Leavis’s formulation is a useful way in, to start considering the borders between the private and the public in poetry, I would want to go more deeply than that – to layers that probably no Cambridge literary academic would ever broach. For it’s not just that Leavis’s ‘Third Realm’ consists of the intersubjective, but that the intersubjective is the clearest indication of the archetypal.
The intersubjective clearly has a kind of ‘objectivity’ of its own. Let’s say one is watching Othello in the theatre. My sixth form English teacher gave me this example back in 1959. In the theatre, at the moment when Othello is accusing Desdemona of adultery and is about to strangle her, someone in the audience shouts out “You bloody great fool, don’t you realise she’s innocent?” This is a subjective response, but it’s one that everybody in the audience is feeling at just that moment, and has sympathy with, so it becomes intersubjective.
RH: So are you saying that ‘May’ was not a confessional poem?
RB: I’m saying that confessing is not its key. I hoped it would touch layers of intersubjectivity.
RH: What particularly moved me was the way you described your father. Your father’s music resonates through the poem. Even though the music fails to awaken the daughter, it awakens something in the reader.
At this point the interview breaks off, as Berengarten shows me photographs: of his father Alexander, who had a musical instrument shop in Shaftesbury Avenue, and was one of the first people to import the jazz saxophone into the UK; of his Aunt Rose, who sang in Hollywood and dubbed the stars; and two photos of his father’s brother, Seymour, the uncle who went to Hollywood as a musician, one photo on set in a group with Rudolf Valentino, and the other with Buster Keaton Junior and Norma Talmadge. Berengarten shows other photos of his father, who died when Berengarten was three years old; of his mother, Rosalind, who attempted to keep the family musical instrument shop going after her husband’s death; and of Berengarten as a small boy, posing with musical instruments and, aged thirteen, as a Bar Mitzvah boy.
RH: To completely change the subject. You lived in Italy when Ezra Pound was there. Did you meet him?
RB: I did and I didn’t. That’s a fascinating question and I still have to write about it fully. The question itself encapsulates a good deal of my complex and ambivalent stance not only vis-à-vis Pound but also other major Anglophone modernists. Some though not all of the story is covered in a memoir I wrote in 1996, entitled ‘With Peter Russell in Venice 1965–1966’, and I’ve made a start on the remaining aspects, which take a more critical and less sympathetic perspective of these modernists, in another so-far unfinished memoir entitled ‘Two Drachmas for a Pound’.
I was living in Italy and teaching in a little English language school in Padua, at roughly the same point that you are at now – that is, shortly after coming down from Cambridge – which would have been in late 1964. It was my first job after graduation and I’d found it thanks to an elderly Venetian poet, Diego Valeri. He’d been a lecturer on a course I’d attended in summer 1963, in Bressanone, on an Italian Institute student grant, organised by the University of Padua. I remember going up to him at the end of a lecture and shyly saying to him, in my execrable schoolboy French – because I didn’t speak Italian yet: “Excusez moi, professeur, je suis aussi un poète.” He must have found that quite funny, but he was a perfect Venetian gentleman, utterly charming, and very kind. He helped me to get that job, which I started in September 1964 in Padua. Then in January 1965, I received a letter from Peter Russell, an English poet living in Venice, inviting me to visit him there. So I took the bus from Padua to Venice to visit him, and learned from him that Diego Valeri had suggested he contact me. At first I thought Peter might be homosexual. He had a great swathe of white hair running from back to front along the middle of his head, like a badger. I thought it might have been dyed, but later learned from him that it was where he had torn his hair out after his bookshop in Tunbridge Wells had gone bankrupt, and the hair had grown back pure white. When I got to know him, he turned out to be very – promiscuously – heterosexual. He and I talked all night.
That meeting with Peter was a turning point that took my life in a new direction. I was twenty-one and he was forty-two, and he introduced me to the living world of poetry. We decided at the end of the conversation, over some strong coffee the next morning, that I would come and live in the bigger apartment he was about to move into, and that I would ask my girlfriend from Cambridge, Kim Landers, to come out too. Peter was a Poundian, and he had moved to Venice partly to live near Pound. In 1950, he had edited a book of essays called An Examination of Ezra Pound, when Pound had been incarcerated in St Elizabeth’s hospital as a lunatic, and this book had been one of the influential factors in securing Pound’s release. It contained essays by writers such as T. S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, Allen Tate, Ernest Hemingway, George Seferis, Wyndham Lewis and Marshall McLuhan. When Kim and I lived at his place in 1965, Peter was on close terms with Pound and Olga Rudge, his partner, and he kept going off to visit Pound on the Giudecca. He would come back and tell us stories about how he had sat there all afternoon and how Pound had said little or nothing. We lived in Castello, in a fine top floor apartment in the Campo de la Bragora, not far from the Riva degli Schiavoni and Piazza San Marco. It had an altana, a balcony on the rooftop, from where on clear days you could see as far as the Dolomites, even though Venice was usually too misty.
We would often see Pound and Olga Rudge walking together on the Giudecca, on the other side of the Grand Canal. But Peter never took Kim or me with him to see Pound. In 2002, when I went to see Peter, who was dying in the Casa di Riposo in Castelfranco di Sopra, a little town in the Tuscan hills, he said suddenly, completely out of the blue: “I never took you to see Pound.” I said, “No, you didn’t.” And he said “Well, I didn’t, and that’s that.” I had often wondered why he didn’t take me, and still do. I think he might have been worried on the one hand that I would be too iconoclastic, and possibly abrupt, because Kim and I at that age were querying just about everything.
At the beginning of the 1960s, my crew in Cambridge were terribly irreverent, in a way you couldn’t imagine from undergraduates now. We were exploding out of the ‘50s. We weren’t worried about getting jobs. We knew we could and would, if we wanted them. There was no unemployment likely for Cambridge graduates. So we were a curious contradictory mix of cockiness, privileged assumptions and unconscious snobbery on the one hand, and insecurity, brashness and uncertainty, desire to please and rebelliousness on the other. We were used to hierarchies, and we were flouting them, even while contradictorily respecting and accepting many of their structures. At that time I thought of Pound mainly as an iconoclast. Perhaps Peter was worried that I’d talk to Pound without due respect, as though he were anyone, rather than a great figure. I may have been naïve, but it did seem odd to me at the time that a person famous for being an iconoclast in his youth should himself end up by being revered and being bowed down to. Perhaps this was to do with a strong element of immaturity and youthful immodesty on my part. But celebrity culture still irks me, though I’m a little wiser in the ways of the world these days. The other thing was Pound’s fascism and his virulent anti-Semitism. I believe that Peter Russell whitewashed these, as he often pointed out that Pound had had many Jewish friends and had never been personally anti-Semitic towards any of them. Perhaps Peter might have been worried that, if he took me to see Pound, I might have brought up ‘awkward’ Jewish issues with him, even though I was only twenty-two at the time. It remained for Alan Ginsberg to do that.
Kim and I did actually meet Pound once with Peter, among a group of people during the interval of a concert at La Fenice, the fine old Venetian theatre that was destroyed in a fire a few years later.
My ‘relationship’ with Pound is very complicated. As John Gery says in his essay in the Companion, I approached Pound in two ways: both directly, through his poems, and indirectly, filtered through Peter Russell, who was his disciple. I’ve never been able to be a disciple of any kind to anyone: I don’t think it’s in my nature. Aside from that, my own complex ambivalences vis-à-vis Pound are those that many poets of my generation have towards him. Added to this, or rather, a key part of it, is the problem of his anti-Semitism, which was virulent, vile and is utterly to be rejected. This is an interesting question when you look at American modernism, because many important Jewish poets were influenced by him, and among them are major modernist figures: Carl Rakosi, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukovsky, to mention only a few, let alone many later poets. There is this genuine problem in relation to both Pound and Eliot, though their anti-Semitism is expressed very differently. Eliot’s anti-Semitism is analysed brilliantly in Anthony Julius’s book, where links with literary form are explored too. I reread Pound only occasionally now and I’ve come to question him more than ever before. These days, much of his prose writing seems bombastic and hollow to me, even though you can’t possibly get away from his genius as a poet. Anyway, that was part of the Italian experience.
Cambridge & London
This interview will appear in Richard Berengarten: A Portrait in Interviews, ed. Paschalis Nikolaou and John Z. Dillon, (Shearsman Books, 2017). Many thanks to John Dillon for his invaluable recommendations in preparing this version.
Writings by Richard Berengarten referenced
1972 Avebury. London: Anvil Press Poetry with Routledge and Kegan Paul.
1981 Tree. London: Menard Press.
1980 Learning to Talk London: Enitharmon Press.
1989 ‘A Grove of Trees and a Grove of Stones’.
1996 ‘With Peter Russell in Venice 1965-1966’, in James Hogg (ed.), The Road to Parnassus:
Homage to Peter Russell on his Seventy-Fifth Birthday: 107-123. Salzburg: University of
1999 Against Perfection. Norwich: The King of Hearts.
1999 Croft Woods. Cambridge: Los Poetry Press.
2001 The Manager (first edition). London and Bath: Elliott and Thompson.
2002 ‘Pour toi’. Address to the Conference, Une poétique mondiale de la poésie?(May 13).
La Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.
2003 Book With No Back Cover. London: David Paul.
2005 For the Living: Selected Longer Poems 1965-2000 (first edition). Cambridge: Salt Publishing.
2006 The Blue Butterfly (first edition). Cambridge: Salt Publishing.
2006 Manual, the first 20. Paekakiriki, New Zealand: Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop.
2006 Mavro fos. Poiemata eis mnimin Yorgou Seferi [Black Light. Poems in Memory of George
Seferis], Greek-English bilingual edition (trans. Nasos Vayenas and Ilias Layios). Athens:
Lalon Ithor [Speaking Water].
2008 Holding the Sea (Manual, the third 20). Paekakiriki, New Zealand: Earl of Seacliff
2009 Manual, the fourth 20. Paekakiriki, New Zealand: Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop.
2009 ‘Borderlines: An Introduction to the “Volta” Project’.
2011 For the Living: Selected Longer Poems 1965-2000 (third edition). Bristol: Shearsman Books.
2011 The Manager (fourth edition). Bristol: Shearsman Books.
2011 The Blue Butterfly (third edition). Bristol: Shearsman Books.
2011 Under Balkan Light. Bristol: Shearsman Books: 73.
2011 Manual: the first hundred. Bristol: Shearsman Books.
2012 Black Light / Luz negra (trans. Miguel Teruel Pozas and Paul S. Derrick). Valencia:
2013 Imagems (1). Bristol: Shearsman Books.
2016 Changing. Bristol: Shearsman Books (forthcoming).
2017 Richard Berengarten: A Portrait in Interviews, ed. Paschalis Nikolaou and
John Z. Dillon. Bristol: Shearsman Books (forthcoming).
Critical Texts referenced
Filippakopoulou, Maria. 2009. ‘Foreign in Our Own Country.’ See also Jope et al.: 193-210.
Gery, John. 2011. ‘Explicit and Implicit: Ezra Pound’s Influence in Richard Berengarten’s ‘Angels’. In Jope et al.: 144-163.
Jope, Norman. 2010. Introduction: Everywhere Centre’, in Jope, Norman, Paul Scott Derrick and Catherine E. Byfield (eds.)
Jope, Norman, Paul Scott Derrick and Catherine E. Byfield (eds.). 2011. The Salt Companion to Richard Berengarten. Cambridge: Salt Publishing. Reissued, 2016, as The Companion to Richard Berengarten. Bristol: Shearsman Books.
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1 “Richard Burns has lived in Greece, Italy, the USA, and the former Yugoslavia, and has worked in the Czech Republic, Latvia, Poland and Russia. […] He writes: “The English language has always been a source of joy and fascination to me, but I would much rather think of myself as a European poet who writes in English than as an ‘English’ poet.” Against Perfection: back flap.↩
2 “Among plural narratives a poem’s singularity relies on contexts. Its tissues, textures, intermeshings and codings are not only its own. I follow Octavio Paz in believing that ‘for the first time in our history, we are contemporaries of all humanity.’ Such a belief postulates an enlightened and magnanimous universalism that is threaded in impassioned love for minute particulars. While firmly rooted in modernism and fully acknowledging the achievements of the modernist masters, such a belief can no longer make concessions to the canny and clannish exclusiveness of traditional modernist and neo-modernist avant-gardes. A poem should be to mean as well as mean to be.” RB 2011, The Manager : 161.↩
3 “The ‘Volta’ project … issues an implicit claim, made gradually more explicit here, that multilingualism and diversity constitute our defining contemporary linguistic, cultural, literary and poetic reality. In attempting at least a preliminary outline of some guiding principles for a viable future poetics, this anthology, including this essay, may form part of a larger communal project. Such a poetics might be called universalist. It could also be called the poetics of the border/line” ‘Borderlines: An Introduction to the “Volta” Project’.↩
4 Note from RB: Anthony Rudolf pointed out to me in December 2014 that “we” in this statement, Paz means “we Mexicans”. For many years, I have construed “we” to mean “we humans”.↩
5 “The discipline of mathematics is seen to be a way, powerful in comparison with others, of revealing our internal knowledge of the structure of the world, and only by the way associated with our common ability to reason and compute.” Spencer Brown: xiii.↩
6 “Counting is in its very essence magical, if any human practice at all is. For numbers are things no one has ever seen, heard or touched. Yet they exist, and their existence can be confirmed in everyday humdrum terms. Numbers are instantly available for every counting operation, like spirits that can be conjured up at will.” Harris 2002 : 133-135.↩
7 RB 2011 , For the Living, ‘Ambassador (An Old Man in the Harbour)’: 174-176. Editors’ note: a later [bilingual English-Spanish] edition includes yet another poem, the sonnet ‘Night Bathing’. RB comments: “This poem, which was started in summer 1982, was not completed until summer 2011.” See RB 2012 , Black Light / Luz negra: 42-43 and 82.↩