Tuesday 31 December 2013

Resolution and Goodbye to Teaching

The problem with the blog has been that I expect to write brief essays and there hasn't been the time recently. But I do resolve to write something on every possible day henceforth, however brief, however minor or fragmentary.

Meanwhile a short farewell note on teaching.

I have retired as a teacher. In fact today is my last official day of employment. My teaching career is over, in a salaried institutional capacity at any rate.

Teaching has been forty years of my life from 1973 on, for the first year as a part-time Art teacher in Cheshunt, the next as a part-time English teacher at a Hitchin school. After that six years first as full-time teacher of Art then as Head of Art in Hitchin Girls' School, followed by twelve years as Director of Art and Art History at St Christopher's in Letchworth, a progressive, independent, vegetarian school where Clarissa also taught and where our children did their own schooling. In 1991 I was asked to draft a poetry course for a new BA in Cultural Studies at what was then Norwich School of Art. I started teaching it on a contracted hours basis in 1992, then, two years later was offered salaried half-time work (I had already opted for a fractional post at the school) and we moved address to where we live now. In the meantime Tom read Computer Science at Bristol and Helen read English at Magdalen College, Oxford. After 1992 I taught poetry and ran the creative writing part of the Cultural Studies degree (which changed its name two or three times in the period) until 2006 when I was asked to apply as a Reader in Creative Writing at UEA, regarded at the time as the leading university for creative writing in the UK, possibly in the world. That is where I have just finished.

In the rest of my life I was writing. I have been publishing books of poetry since 1978 and have been translating from the Hungarian since 1984. But that was independent of teaching and, mostly, nothing to do with it apart from the fact that between 1975 and 1991 I wrote a play or libretto a year, usually as a production for school. Those things may continue to blow about as dust in the desert but I enjoyed writing and producing them and some of them, by no means all, had something to recommend them.

Teaching was mostly exciting: the roll call of those I taught (along with colleagues of course, chiefly Peter Scupham and Andrea Holland and, latterly, Denise Riley and Lavinia Greenlaw) who have become widely published and recognized poets is considerable, on average close to two a year. If one can be proud of the success of others I am very proud of them. There are still others who were and continue to be outstanding writers who should be better known. I wish them luck and am just as proud of them.

I think what I chiefly taught was close listening and close reading, which is of far greater use to a developing writer than any amount of theory, however valuable that might be as an informing discipline. The rest was a perpetual willingness to laugh, a good deal of patience and simply a keen curiosity about what might have been going on in the words of young potential writers. There were times I was hands-on in a way not generally approved ("Why not scrub this, why not move this to there, why not raise or lower stakes here or there, have you tried this or that word…" etc). But the writers all turned out differently. I don't think there is a recognizable spawn of Szirtes, and if there isn't, it is probably because of a personal curiosity. I never consciously preferred one way of writing - or, perhaps even more importantly, one way of feeling - over another. Somewhere in the text I was reading I assumed there was some reason for its existence, or at least an opportunity within it that might lead somewhere.

That is what tutorials were about. The class teaching was not a matter of teaching tricks - there are few tricks that are worth teaching - it was, with the postgraduates, the encouragement of a culture of generous but intense listening (don't immediately tell us whether you like the writing, first try to describe what it is and what it seems to be doing), and, with the undergraduates, a strong interest in discussing the principles of poetry and language, and in introducing works that demonstrated a reasonable range of options.

The original undergraduate course involved five semesters of reading and writing with terms devoted to Poetry as Song, Poetry as Narrative, Poetry as Ideas, and Poetry as Reports on Experience. So there were ten divergent selections of song, ten of idea, ten of narrative and ten of essentially descriptive verse. Not that these were clear distinctions in themselves, but that they were useful ways of entering discussion. Today I would probably extend this with a course in Poetry as Register, and Poetry as Voice.

Shaw told the world that those who can, do and that those who can't, teach. It was a cruel thing to say. Almost everyone has taught: all the great masters of visual art had their schools, most writers had friends to whom they looked for criticism and advice. That is, in essence, all teaching is. It is a sort of friendship based on common interest within a framework. The friendship may well continue once the framework falls away. It is a human exchange based on curiosity, generosity, wit, and close attention.

As for the institutions, they exist as frameworks that facilitate such human exchanges. It is their only proper function. The current drive towards an ever more corporate business model is the opposite of learning: it operates on the lines of the nineteenth century mill glossed by twenty-first century public relations. The UEA is fine at the moment - long may it continue to be. I am leaving at a point when that drive is ever more in the ascendant in many places. It is to be resisted and ridiculed. The human spirit can do better than that.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Two Family Photographs with Hats


Someone asked if we were happy back in, what was it, 1951? I certainly wasn't unhappy. I suspect my parents were as happy as one could be in a poor totalitarian state. If this is indeed c. 1951 then my father is thirty-three or -four and, for the first time in his life, enjoying his work in the Ministry of Building after years of lowly manual work, forced labour and near extinction. My mother, not in the picture because she is taking it, is twenty-six, six years out of concentration camp, working as a photographer, albeit restricted because she is registered as a class alien and under surveillance, as was my father, as was everyone, but class aliens more than most. My father had lost his father, my mother had lost everyone. If this is 1951, my brother is not yet born. We do not even dream of a car, a TV, a fridge, a vacuum cleaner or any mod com except a radio with very restricted reception. Dad walks to work. We have a flat on the edge of the 7th district opposite the Liszt Music Academy which stands in a square that is still barren. The city is still partially in ruins, but I suspect this might have been the happiest period of their lives. So, surely the answer must be yes, we were happy and our lives were OK.


This is mid-sixties, say 1965, in north west London and we are all dressed up to go for our Sunday meal, probably at Schmidt's in Charlotte Street which was our favourite proper restaurant. On alternate Sundays we ate out at an Italian cafe, served by a beautiful young Italian woman called Filomena, with whom I was probably shyly and morosely in love. I am about fifteen, going on sixteen in the picture. If this is 1965 my father is forty-eight, my mother forty. Ask me that question about happiness again. I am not happy, nor do I look happy in the photo. Why would I be at that age? Who is? I vaguely remember that we had exchanged a few cross words before leaving and had stopped by a car, probably our car, a Morris or an Austin, probably a company car, to allow someone I can't now remember, who might have arranged to come to Schmidt's with us, to take this photo. We're too smart for the Italian cafe. My mother insists on smartness. Are they happy, my mother and father? It's not a bad life, surely. My father has given up a potentially exciting if dangerous career back home for a steady job in England. My mother has no real hope of being a press photographer now. Too ill, she might still be working as a retoucher in Oxford Street, but might already be working from home. This isn't our last family house in London, it's probably the penultimate one, in Kingsbury. My brother and I are at school, of which more another time.

The question of happiness

The way such a question is posed always leads to confusion. We start by considering our conditions and trying to work out whether we were moving up or down, were stable or unstable, well or ill, fulfilled or not fulfilled, and balancing these things up leaves us flummoxed. Was there more happiness than unhappiness?  I would not say my school days were happy or fulfilled. My brother's were troubled and very difficult. My father was at least keeping the ship afloat. My mother was probably the least happy of us all. What does that add up to?

Consciousness of happiness does not take into account all the factors that might make us so. What is certain is that things might have been a great deal worse but we didn't spend time thanking our lucky stars for that. No, we are transient beings in transient times. There we are standing by a car on a foggy winter day, well wrapped up, presenting a face. My parents put their backs into the moment and try to make it work. I love my mother's outfit in the second picture. I love my father's hat and coat. I love his hat and his expression in the first.  The curious little figure that is me stands beside him looking frightened. What is there not to be frightened of? I wear my hat the way my mother has arranged it. Cute! she might be thinking. And I have to admit it does look cute. Cue the conditions for happiness.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

The Death of Peter Zollman

Peter Zollman has died. 

Who was he? A remarkable man. Born in Hungary in 1931, a scientist in the first place, then an industrial scientist, and then, after he retired, an extraordinarily gifted translator of Hungarian poetry into English. 

That in itself is something of a miracle, partly because he believed in form-for-form translation and practised it with great skill, but even more because a man of Peter's age,  that is to say someone who did not enter the English language very early as I was fortunate to do, usually finds it impossible to develop a keen ear for English language poetry. Peter went through a period of 'apprenticeship' as a verse translator but over the last twenty years or so could 'hear' English verse, feel its balance, and shift gracefully between registers while keeping true to form.

He was a dedicated and copious translator. He translated all the major Hungarian poets from the 16th century to the present, and in considerable quantity. His work rarely appeared in the English publishing world, but it did appear in book form on many occasions, often through Hungary-based publishers but also through the US.

We sometimes translated the same poem and there are a good number of occasions on which I would recommend his rather than mine.

I am looking to write a proper obituary for either the Guardian or The Independent if I can persuade them. He certainly deserves it.

He died in his sleep last night. His widow, Denise, rang this afternoon to give us the news.