Lidia Vianu: You were looking for an interview with Michael Hamburger when you stumbled on my site (http://www.unibuc.ro/ro/cd_lidvianu_ro). Is literature your hobby or your job?
Stephen Wilson: Hobby seems too small a word. Literature has been an enduring passion. Poetry is a life-force, a kind of anti-aging growth factor?
LV. As a psychiatrist, I should think the human mind has no secrets for you. Poetry, on the other hand, is a land of all kinds of secrets. Does your profession help your poetry?
SW. Psychiatrists do not know much about the human mind. We know a little about how the brain functions and psychoanalysis teaches us something about the mind, its tremendous creative potential and its extraordinary destructive capacity. Its tendency to self-deception. My profession helps me to read poetry (including my own ) and poetry helps me to practise my profession. Both activities can be ways of strengthening one’s ability to come to terms with the truth. T.S. Eliot famously tells us that humankind cannot bear very much reality, but Emily Dickinson found a way – ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant – Success in circuit lies.’ Poetry is non-discursive language, it is writing which is undetermined by the width of the page, it is ‘tropological’, it is ‘circuit’, but it does not hurt. This does not mean (as Plato would have it) that poetry has to tell lies. Paradoxically it delivers a shot of truth-tolerating medicine together with a large dollop of pleasure.
LV. Among the poems you have written one mentions a grandmother born in Minsk:
Chance Encounter With My Grandmother
The odds of meeting you on the Nevskiy Prospekt
must have been verging on a billion to one,
especially since you were born in Minsk,
Belarus, considerably further south than St Petersburg
more than a hundred and twenty years earlier.
Yet there you were – walking toward me
through the snow, surprisingly sure-footed
among a mass of bobbing hats and coats.
Your fur was out of fashion, as were your
flat-soled boots, and you were carrying
two shopping bags, one in each hand,
full of provisions. I saw you glance down
and tut as you crossed the Anichov Bridge,
where beer bottles and empty cans had been
chucked into the Fontanka, frozen into a carpet
of snow and ice and slush, littered like the bedroom
floor of a teenage boy. Opposite the Literary Café,
where Pushkin, having been dubbed, “Grand Master
of the Most Serene Order of Cuckolds”,
waited for his fatal duel with Georges d’Anthés,
we ran right into one another. You seemed deeply
unimpressed and as I kissed your cheek, warned me
against poetry, not to get any meshúgga ideas,
or fritter away my time on a ganze megíllah.
In Yiddish ‘meshúgga’ means crazy, ‘ganze megíllah’ means, in this context, a long book with aspirations to literary merit.
[Fluttering Hands p. 61.]
Does this mean your parents were Russian (or at least one of them)? You remember going to the Synagogue in London in 1954:
On Fridays just before sunset,
mother lit candles for the Sabbath.
We thanked the King of the Universe
for the fruit of the vine, the gift
of bread from the earth, the beauty
of the day coming in like a bride.
At sunrise we woke to a stillness,
washed and reminded ourselves
there was only one God –
begged that our lips be opened,
our mouths declare His praise.
Clad in our best for synagogue
we walked the three-quarter mile,
my father’s trilby, my school-cap
raised in unison to ladies passing by.
A silk tallith draped over his shoulders
like the stole on a ball-gown,
Rabbi Rabinovitz unfurled the scrolls,
a silver finger pointing the way –
parchment teaming with tiny black fauna,
each one with a pop-star’s quiff:
,dal eht otnu dnah yht htrof hcterts ton oD
.mih otnu mrah yna uoht od rehtien
After the service I ran home through
the playing fields of Gladstone Park,
passing ruffians calling – Jew, Jew-boy.
[Fluttering Hands p.62.]
This last line, ‘Jew, Jew-boy’, reminds me of Harold Pinter, who had a similar experience as a teenager. Is it comfortable to be a Jewish Londoner? Are you Jewish or British at this point in your life?
SW. My parents were born in the United Kingdom. My maternal grandmother was born in Minsk, the daughter of a Hebrew teacher who fled the city together with his family in the wake of anti-Jewish pogroms. She was brought up in Kovno, Lithuania and came to England at the turn of the nineteenth century where she met my grandfather who had come from Lvov, part of ‘Jewish’ Galicia at that time in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now of course, the Ukraine. They felt free in England.
By contrast with the violent anti-Semitism they had experienced, British anti-Semitism was mild, mainly cultural. I was brought up in an observant Jewish family in London, but I have not lived in London since qualifying as a doctor in 1968, nor am I an observant Jew. Britishness and Jewishness are not exclusive alternatives and both are part of my identity, neither is easily definable. However, two thousand years of European Christian anti-Semitism cannot be easily shrugged off. It is embedded in the English language and literature which I love. This is not conducive to comfort.
LV. Elaine Feinstein was a bit apprehensive as far as anti-Semitism was concerned. Michael Hamburger simply said it was the Germans who made the German Jews Jewish, which means his parents were very well assimilated in Germany before he had to leave. Ruth Fainlight is proud of her Jewishness but feels very British. Dannie Abse seems aloof. You are busy working on an anthology of Jewish literature in England, if I am not mistaken. Why? What makes you look for co-nationals while – if that is your identity – you live in a sort of exile?
SW. I cannot choose my identity, I experience it as a given. I was raised in a Jewish Community. My parents spoke English but they could also speak Yiddish. I learnt and prayed in Hebrew from an early age. I had a Bar Mitzvah when I was thirteen. My early cultural heroes were secular Jews central to the intellectual development of the modern world, Marx, Freud, Einstein, Kafka. My Jewish identity was not primarily formed in reaction to anti-Semitism (although this is also an inescapable factor).
‘Poetics of the Diaspora’, which I am working on, is not so much an anthology as a critical commentary investigating the figurative structure of Anglo-Jewish poems. I discovered sequences of metaphor in my own work which seemed to be employed in an unconscious attempt to process troublesome experience. I wanted to see if other Anglo-Jewish poets used the same or similar strategies.
LV. Why do most Jews prefer to live in the Diaspora?
SW. In 130 Hadrian visited Judea and ordered the province to be renamed Palestine. Six years of Jewish-Roman war followed. In the year 136 the Romans finally prevailed. From that time onward till the creation of the modern State of Israel in 1948, the Jewish people ceased to exist as a political entity and all Jews were considered to be living in the Diaspora. The demise of the Jews’ sovereignty over land combined with the refusal to give up their religion and identity as a people created two elements in their diasporic existence: an unending attachment to the Land of Israel, the redemption of Zion as a perpetual longing; and an unending status as ‘foreigner sojourning in someone else’s land’, second-class citizen, eternal ‘other’, perpetual scapegoat . So it is only for the last 58 years that there has been any choice.
Given full economic, political and religious freedom, equality of opportunity and freedom from persecution, given a pluralist liberal-democracy, the disadvantages attached to ‘otherness’ do not apply. Under these circumstances, I think most people would prefer to live in the country where they were born. But these conditions have rarely existed in Jewish history, sometimes referred to as a ‘lachrymose’ history. The hopelessness of satisfactory Jewish life in ‘exile’ terribly confirmed by the Nazi genocide of European Jewry was replaced by the hopefulness of the Jewish State set up in its aftermath.
It is a tragedy of immense proportion that this has led to the creation of a new Palestinian Diaspora and seemingly irresolvable conflict. Jewish nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century was a late development compared to other national movements. Palestinian nationalism even later. Jews in Israel are sometimes portrayed as colonialists or neo-colonialists. But their situation is unique. No colonial power on earth ever dug up its own history in the land which it colonised.
LV. Is it all right for Jews to assimilate to their host countries to the extent they have done so far? I tend to think of Bellow as American, Dannie Abse as British, Kafka as Czech, Marx as German, and so on. I wonder, is Jewishness a nationality or a sense of mere intellectual/emotional/(sometimes only) religious belonging? And if so, belonging to what exactly?
SW. These questions are unanswerable. No doubt ‘Jewishness’ is more than one thing or different things to different people. Zionists have sometimes castigated diasporic Jews for their supposed chameleon characteristics (See ‘Author A.B. Yehoshua vexes US Jews’, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3246476,00.html ), even suggested that assimilation engenders anti-Semitism. Assimilation carries with it cultural loss, on the other hand pluralism aspires to cultural gain. But is it possible? Is the creative hyphen meaningful – Jewish-American, Anglo-Jewish, Black-American, Anglo-Irish etc.? There has been a sad loss of Jewish diasporic languages and culture (they were banned in the early days of the State of Israel). But there has been a gain in the revivication of the Hebrew language. Judaism itself discriminates against its men folk by insisting on a matrilineal definition of ‘belonging’. This is a self-defeating policy which contributes to its own extinction.
LV. Why is it always so awkward for a Jew to adopt another religion or another country? Jews feel so uncomfortable to say: this is my homeland. They simply say, I was born in... When they turn Catholic, they are afraid of their co-nationals as much as of the other Catholics. Why this constant and hard to account for sense of guilt?
SW. Betrayal. For centuries Christianity needed to define itself against the split off ‘bad’ otherness of the Jews, to identify the Jewish people as a whole with ‘Judas the (eponymous) betrayer of Christ’, the eternal villain. It is a Jewish poet (who had only ever worshipped in the Church of England), Michael Hamburger, who writes a poem sympathetic to the plight of Judas:
No part was harder than his and none more cruel:
To be God’s chosen villain in the absolute play,
Cast out by friends and enemies, cast out of self,
Hated by all for ever, hating himself;
And that the sinuous prophecy might be fulfilled,
Wriggle, a viper, down the appointed path,
Dust on his tongue,
Till he was dry and twisted as the final rope…
[See Peter Lawson, Passionate Renewal:Jewish Poetry in Britain Since 1945, (Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications, 2001) p.109. ]
It took nearly two millennia of Christian anti-Semitism and the horrors of the Holocaust to elicit, twenty years after the end of World War II, an (almost) unequivocal Declaration from Pope Paul VI, Nostra Aetate, to the effect that not all Jews were to be held responsible for the death of Christ.
In Christian anti-Semitism (but not the later racist variety) conversion was seen as a remedy for the Jewish condition. Forced conversion was a punishment – Shylock’s punishment for his lust after Christian blood – without doubt a variant of the ‘Blood Libel’. Jews who convert have to deal with the deeply embedded anti-Semitism in Christianity. They are invited to betray themselves. If they stay Jewish they are identified with Judas betraying Christ, if they convert they become Judas betraying the Jews.
LV. May I ask if you are a religious man? If you cultivate your Jewishness while you are an important member of British society? Doctor, professor, writer... What more could you do to prove you are British? Yet... are you?
SW. I am not a religious man. I do not cultivate my Jewishness anymore than I cultivate my respiration or my heartbeat. And yes, I am also British, I do not think about that very much. Britishness is a fairly inclusive category nowadays. Nobody would ever say: ‘You don’t look British’, although they might say: ‘You don’t look English.’ Jews are a small minority in this country, probably 0.5% of a population of 60,000,000. By contrast there are thought to be about twice as many Afro-Caribbeans and about 1.5 million British Moslems. About 200,000 Poles are thought to have entered the country since they joined the EU. Multicultural Britain is a very different place to the whiter more uniform, more socially stratified Britain into which I was born.
LV. When did you write your first poem?
SW. I think I was fifteen or sixteen. It was published in the school magazine, The Kilburnian. Later I became its editor. I attended an all boys grammar school in London. There was a synagogue nearby where Jewish boys could obtain kosher meals. Years after I left, the school became an Islamic High School for Girls and the synagogue is now a mosque.
LV. Did you continue writing poetry or is it a recent development in your life?
SW. I wrote poems sporadically over the following years. The fact that I did so seemed to threaten my career in medicine before it had even begun. It was only after several rejections from London Medical Schools that I ended up at the Royal Free Hospital in 1962, then almost all female, being interviewed by a Welsh Dean who shared my enthusiasm for Dylan Thomas and did not regard it as a disqualification. Yet there is a noble tradition of medical poets. Apollo himself was said to know ‘three arts’ – music, poetry and medicine.
About sixteen years ago I began to publish occasional poems in magazines but it is only during the last couple of years that I have devoted half my week to poetry and the other half to psychiatry. Dannie Abse knew he had to do this when he was a young doctor, it took me rather longer to get to the same point. Now I’m a man in a hurry.
LV. Some say poetry is a young man’s prerogative, meaning there is no poetry without love in it. Great poets have always managed to combine thought and feeling in a passionate love for ideas. How do you write? What produces the poem, in your case? Could it have anything to do with that Jewish sensibility that is like a fine lace?
SW. Well I don’t think love is a young man’s prerogative. But poetry is words, stuff, linguistic material through which the emotions are ‘given a local habitation’. My poems tend to be derived from experience which is then filtered through the associative (holophrastic) process that language allows. My sense is that all forms of love including passionate love can grow with age. My poem, ‘Eva’, is a love-poem, an unrequited lover’s poem to my granddaughter:
at fifteen months
The way your small head turns,
you could be networking
at a cocktail party or a waitress
trying not to catch my eye,
a barmaid serving someone else—
worse, a lone woman waiting
for the last tube. I want to tell you,
once, during a bomb scare,
I received an unexpected parcel
wrapped in plain brown paper,
which turned out to contain
a single orchid, whose stem
was immersed in a crystal
scent bottle, filled with water.
[Fluttering Hands p. 47.]
LV. Is poetry a good form of psychotherapy? When you are strong on paper, you can at least hope you are so in real life, too. Can poetry make us happier?
SW. One of Plato’s objections to poetry was that it would subvert young men’s courage by giving expression to emotions, to ‘weakness’. Shelley, however, believed that poetry had a transformative effect upon the emotions, an enabling function which allowed us to take in ‘the poisonous waters that flow from death through life and in a secret alchemy convert them to ‘potable gold’ – in other words ‘to metabolise’ mental pain.
Nowadays we have ‘Poets in Residence’ in mental hospitals and prisons as well as arts centres and universities but editors of magazines and judges of poetry competitions sometimes warn against submitting ‘therapy’ by which I suppose they mean poems which have only personal value.
I believe that a series of poetic tropes may not only express emotional conflict but also be capable of modulating its unconscious roots. Poetry can help us to resolve conflict, poetry can help us to bear pain and poetry can give us pleasure. Yes, I am convinced that poetry can make us happier.
LV. I wonder about the fate of poetry in the near future sometime. Today poets read poets (or interviewers read them...). Do we have an audience of amateurs any more? I have this certainty in the back of my mind that Homer was the answer to an archetypal human need which cannot die. Poetry should never go away. But how will it survive?
SW. There are probably more ‘closet poets’ than published poets. Writing poetry is an act of self-expression so intimate that many perform it in secret. When Emily Dickinson died in 1886, her sister Lavinia discovered about 1800 poems locked in a silver box, gathered together in sixty packets of loosely-sewn-together paper. But you are asking who will read poetry and this is a different question. I agree that the reading of poetry also answers a basic human need and am optimistic about its future. Poetry is as unlikely to die out as song.
LV. And one last question (I have abused your kindness as it is – but talking to a psychiatrist poet is so rare and so insightful): It used to be essential to a poet to be read and published and sold everywhere. Byron was a myth. The poet today is so private and just part of a small, very specialized community. I have constantly found it easy to deal with poets, who are always so warm and reassuring, while novelists whom I approach with interviews will hardly give me the time of day (with the exception of David Lodge, Peter Ackroyd, Graham Swift, Julian Barnes and Alasdair Gray). I am aware time is limited and they are cornered from all sides. But so are you: practicising medicine, teaching, a full-time grandparent, poet and (I am sure) a great reader. You had time to look for poetry on the internet, and you took time to answer these questions. Kazuo Ishiguro never once answered the five letters I sent him over the years. Has poetry changed – socially – into something new? Could you define the ‘use and function of poetry’ nowadays?
SW. Language can be put to good or bad use. Poetry can be meaningfully contrasted with propaganda. I think the social function of poetry is to make us more human, that of propaganda to make us less so. Poetry, like serious fiction, masquerades as ‘lies’ but promotes the truth, propaganda masquerades as the truth but it pedals lies.
Stephen Wilson’s collection of poems, Fluttering Hands, was published by Greenwich Exchange, London, 2008.