Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Why Poetry?
Text of Speech at Goldsmiths

Photo by Tom Szirtes. Estelle Morris speaking as Chair. Joan Ruddock next to me.

I was extremely privileged yesterday to receive an Honorary Fellowship from Goldsmiths College, University of London. Such things are rare and of course I couldn't help thinking of my parents to whom - especially to my mother who died very early - this would have been some kind of official stamp of approval, more perhaps than the literary prizes, (because, after all, this is a real university) on my apparently poor choice of art college poetry over something more stable and more generally recognised.

I received a very handsome and full laudation from Professor Alan Downie and, as is costumary, was asked to reply in about 5-7 minutes. This is what I said. There is some autobiographical material but I also wanted to speak, however briefly, about the meaning of poetry and the value of all the arts in a civilised society.
I put it here since it is unlikely to appear anywhere else and I'd like to preserve the occasion.

It is a great and unexpected pleasure to be awarded an Honorary Fellowship by one’s old college and my first act must be to thank Goldsmith's College for the privilege; my second, quite clearly, is warmly to congratulate all those receiving their degrees today, people who are artists, art historians, students of English and American Literature, Comparative Literature, or Drama and, in the case of higher degrees, of Creative Writing.

All these degrees cover various parts of my own background. The fact is I was only at Goldsmiths for a year between 1972 and 1973, and that was for the purpose of doing a postgraduate Art Teaching Certificate following my degree in Fine Art at Leeds. That was the qualification, though when I came to this great college - so well known now for both the artists and writers it has nourished - I nurtured no ambition to be a teacher - but I had to do something. I was a painter and a poet and needed to survive, especially since I was already married and we were expecting our first child.  What had chiefly attracted me back then was the generous provision of studio time and the availablity of a studio in the cellar of the disused car showroom then used by Goldsmiths for the course. The college seemed to accept that one’s life as an artist had not come to an end with teaching. You could teach and yet be an artist.

It had been a circuitous route getting here. You have already heard much of my life from Professor Downie’s kind speech so I don’t need to go over that again, so maybe just a little background to one or two points.

I was born in Budapest in 1948 and would probably have stayed there had it not been for the revolution of 1956 when my family, like many others, took the illegal route out of Hungary and walked across the border, becoming refugees in the process. Once in Austria we were offered a flight to England and arrived here in the winter of '56 spending our first few months on the Kent coast in an off-season boarding house along with other refugees. We had nothing at all at the time so were utterly dependent on whatever hospitality was afforded. That hospitality, I should say, was generous and efficient. We were seen as victims of Soviet imperialism and aggression and this was at the height of the Cold War so our welcome was partly conditioned by our circumstances.

From Kent we moved to London. Having been clever at school in Budapest my parents assumed I would do well at school here and eventually bcome what they intended me to be, that is a doctor, preferably a heart surgeon. The trouble was I had neither the head for sciences nor the necessary manual skill to be delving into delicate human organs. In fact I wasn’t particularly good at school: I was all right but nothing more.

Nevertheless, I did sciences to A level and, having dropped art at thirteen, picked it up again for a term at the end of my sixth form. To everyone’s astonishment I did well at it. I had already started writing poems, quite suddenly in fact. This is how it happened. A friend stopped me in the school corridor and showed me a poem written by a mutual acquaintance. I read it and, though I didn't say so, didn’t like it. It didn't ring true somehow. I didn’t know much about poems at all and had only read a few while supposedly doing Physics homework - but I knew it was not a truth I could believe in. I wouldn’t have known quite why not but, strange as it seems, I suddenly knew what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a poet.

The thought had never crossed my mind before. I had no really independent notion of the future. Life had been a series of anxieties and partial failures to that point: now my course seemed clear. Not for my parents of course. Art was no career and poetry was even less.

What is poetry? I hope I am speaking for all the arts here.

We know what poetry is in our bones. Everyone does. For a writer it is a particular sense of the world as it meets language. It is the way words strike each other and form something beyond themselves. It is not lyrical speech or a pretty way of saying something. It is language that is compelling in its own way however simple or difficult, or hot or cold, or direct or ironic it might be. It is the world and our experience of it in language. It is complexity coming to a shape, becoming a process that reads as meaning. It is all the terrible and beautiful things we fear, know, hope, and imagine assuming a comprehensible shape in words.

But poetry is not just for readers or writers. Even for those who are not writers and never read a poem it is, as W H Auden put it in his poem In Memory of W. B. Yeats, a way of happening. It is what Finn McCool in Irish legend decides is the music of what happens. It is the way someone steps out through a door, the way something lies on the table, the way a move in football leads to a goal. The way light moves. The way something extremely minute makes sense by being itself yet being other and more. It happens to everyone. We desire such moments more than we desire money or fame or even happiness. It is what moves us from routine into possibility. We live for it. We can’t really live without it. We want the other stuff that jobs and careers bring us and offer to society, and - of course - they too contain such moments. We need the poetry of being to help make sense of the world and to make life worth while..

I don’t want to go all rhetorical and Dead Poets Society on you but this is true. This is the case. If you don’t believe something like this why do it? Why engage with it?

I  never wanted a career as such, I just wanted to write. Other things had to be done and done well for my own sanity and the well-being of others. I didn’t plan much. I enjoyed my time at Goldsmiths but had no idea what would come next.The only certainty was that I would be writing whatever the circumstances.

Going out into the world with a degree like yours or mine is no easy passport to anything, but what you have chosen to do is a form of love, and that kind of devoted yet oddly disinterested love is a vital aspect of human life.  You may do all sorts of things along the way but it is what fascinates you, what you love and distrust and love again, that matters. You are not just job vacancies and career paths or plugged holes in the economy. You are representatives of the imagination and intelligence and of the arts’ own brand of perception and wisdom. That is your vital contribution.

It is great to be receiving a degree and completing a course of study. I want to thank Goldsmiths again for the tremendous honour and to wish you all everything good in your future lives.


Angela Pegg said...

Wonderful, George. Thank you for reminding. I am still writing poetry - better, I think, than when I was at UEA. Your teaching and listening were so helpful. I am also doing some experimental fiction with my writing group in Framlingham. Keep up the great work of helping to make poetry significant in these times.

Angie (Pegg)

George S said...

How lovely to hear from you, Angie - and thank you. Good luck with that experimental fiction. I have been doing a little experimenting myself.

Terese Coe said...

You've managed to state in courageously straightforward terms what it is about writing that keeps me doing it--thanks for this, George! Still workin' on it!

Terese Coe

Anonymous said...

That truth will do for me. Thank you for sharing it - like poetry it means something.

Andrea Holland said...

Congratulations dear George, on the award and also such honest and powerful words in response.

Gwil W said...

Congratulations George. Thanks for sharing.