I didn't post yesterday as I am madly reading through the Stephen Spender competition entries - 347 translations of poems from various languages. Life can be hectic at times chez Szirtes and the competition got squeezed into a week or so. Besides one can only read poems for a few hours before the instruments go blunt. In the first break from reading I received a small group of questions from a student (not one of mine, and not local) by email. They were so intelligent and to the point that I took my break by answering them. I post the questions and replies because it is useful for me to remember what I said about these things and the blog is a way of remembering. Then I'll write another post. So:
How do you decide on the form a poem is going to take? At what stage in the creative process are things like rhyme, rhythm and structure (or the lack of any of the three) decided? Do you deliberately choose them, at the outset, or do they evolve as you write?
It depends. When I am writing a sonnet I know the form before, as I do with a number of other forms, like the canzone, which I tried because a friend (the poet Marilyn Hacker) drew my attention to it. A sonnet has fourteen lines, a canzone has sixty-five. A canzone is more demanding because the line-ending pattern is set to high-intensity repetition, while there are various forms of sonnet and one can move the versions around so what you do still registers as part of the sonnet family. There are standard forms, including terza rima, sestina, rondeau, villanelle, the Villonesque ballade (as in The Grand Testament), the acrostic, the mirror form, the Easter Wings form in which there are clear rules, some of which, in some cases, may be modifiable. Personally I like it when the form is not too four-square and steady - I prefer it rocking a little, even on the edge of breaking up but still holding together.
There are other verse forms that I have improvised or even possibly invented, as by chance, usually, in the case of a new poem or subject, when there is no direct precedent in what I have already done, that is related, In these cases I genuinely don't know what the form is going to be before the third or fourth line is done. Sometimes even then, the poem goes quite another way - for example, an unexpected short line might appear that looks right, and then the form moves on to something else, possibly a song form.
The proper answer then is that sometimes there is a decision (if you write a sequence of sonnets, then each part has to be a sonnet of some description), other times it evolves, but generally by the fourth or fifth line I know what the eventual shape will be.
Furthermore, when you constuct a rhyme scheme, does it come naturally or do you have to plan ahead?
I never plan ahead. Planning doesn't work for me. I improvise and accept or reject my improvisations. I don't mind beating up sonnets: they can stand it. Terza rima is more demanding, but all I have to do even then is just to think a little ahead and feel the narrative shape developing. That is an instinctual reaction - by instinct I suspect I mean an internalised form of learning, the way a pianist will hit a chord, not because he thinks about it as a separate and distinct act, but because his fingers are aware of certain possibilites. There isn't a distinct conscious thought to decide the fingering. If he is an improvising kind of pianist, he wants to be surprised. And so do I. Surprise makes things new. In fact I firmly believe that a poem has to surprise the writer, that the true poet cannot know quite what he is doing but discovers it. Where the form is ornate, say in the canzone, I make the decisions as I go, but consider, as I choose my end words, whether I might or might not be able to live with them to the end. The key to writing is listening. I mean listening to the poem as it forms and responding to it.
Do you ever write with a particular political or cultural aim in mind? To make a point, as it were (as opposed to personally exploring an idea)?
I go with Keats who hated poetry that had a palpable design on the reader. I don't mind versifying - in fact I enjoy it - but my inner ghost is always whispering to me that life is more complicated than a versified slogan or anthem, and that it is my duty to be faithful to that complexity while articulating it as simply as possible, even while improvising and discovering it. I don't write to tell people what I know or think I know (my suspicion is that I 'know' very little), but to find out how the subject sings. People have asked me to write for particular public occasions - wars, commemorations, etc - and I have tried to oblige without betraying my core instinct. I am not there to cheer on or to demand executions. Except, just possibly, as dramatic gestures. Dramatic gestures are interesting in themselves. But beyond that the general principle is that if it is action that is required, then act, don't bleat on like a sheep hoping to attract other sheep.
Who or what would you say have been the greatest influences on your writing, both in terms of style and subject?
There have been various poets that have hit me hard over the years and, like all poets I imagine, I carry the bruises. Some have faded, some don't. First great hero was the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (who I read only in English translation), then it was Eliot, then it was Auden and Brodsky, but these were only the heavy punchers. Then there are the Hungarians from whom I have learned by translation. I would say Rilke, Wallace Stephens, but also John Crowe Ransom and Elizabeth Bishop among the moderns, and Marvell, Herbert, Pope and Byron (the comic Byron) among the historical. As you can see, that's a lot of nice bruises and I haven't mentioned a quarter of them yet.
One of the reasons I think I am drawn to your work is that my grandparents are East European immigrants; how do you think exile and the dilemmas posed by assimilation have affected your writing, if at all?
I do increasingly think so, yes, though it has rarely been a direct 'subject' of my work. I imagine it is a kind of inner predisposition to find things balancing up in a particular way. Assimilation was distinctly an issue for my parents and, in the 70s and 80s was a poetic issue for me, but, again, not as a subject, more as a way of trying to 'speak English' and all that means. I do believe that historical consciousness is a considerable value in the best poetry, but I don't mean by that a set of specific subjects or even allusions, just a sense of the world as a force behind you and a terrain in front of you.
I've particularly enjoyed some of your poems about both Budapest and London; do you feel a particular attraction to metropolises?
Yes, I am at home in urban spaces. I was born in Budapest and my early psycho-geography is the streets, walls, sounds and spaces of the city. I like fields and hills and what people consider natural places, but in some ways the city is my natural space, the rest an excursion.
Equally, you often include depictions of war scenes; do you think being born only three years after the end of the Second World War and living through the Hungarian Uprising left an indelible mark on your writing?
The war scenes were the actual walls and broken statues of Budapest as I saw them in the mid-Eighties. The walls were covered in bullet and shell scars. The statues had lost limbs and heads. It was as if history was engraved on the skin of the place. Those walls fed through into the notional pianist's fingers. I instinctively think history is like those walls. Since 1989 the scars have been covered and tidied in most places, but it's too late - I know they were there.
Finally, I've recently finished reading Auto Da Fe, having only ever heard of it because of 'The Burning of the Books', and I thought it was wonderful. Can you recommend any other East European translations, or similar books, that I might enjoy as well?
Yes, there are others, if by others we are talking novels. Bruno Schulz's 'The Street of Crocodiles', Joseph Roth's 'The Radetzky March'; Antal Szerb's 'Journey by Moonlight', W.G. Sebald's 'Austerlitz', Thomas Walzer's 'The Walk'. And there are those I myself translated of which these three are perhaps the most magnificent: László Krasznahorkai's 'The Melancholy of Resistance' (Krasznahorkai is a living author), Gyula Krúdy's 'The Adventures of Sindbad' and Sándor Márai's 'The Rebels'. Like Canetti, all these authors perceive life and stories in terms of a kind of underlying poetry.
It is a little self-indulgent putting this here - as though anyone was interested! But it is equally false to think people are not interested. And, dammit, I'm interested to see what I say when I open my mouth. Those are the books I first thought of in the last question - no doubt I have missed many others.