PoetryPoet Clive Wilmer interviewed by Gil Dekel.

Gil Dekel: Hello, Clive… [1]

Clive Wilmer: Nice to meet you, Gil, at last… [2]

I wasn’t sure if this is Cambridge Central Station, because it looks so ‘open’; quite wide… [3]

Yes, it’s an unusual lay-out here. This part of England is very flat, like Holland… [4]

In The Mystery of Things, your recent book, there are quite a few references to religion, using such words as God, Lord, Angels. [5]

I suppose if I am absolutely frank about it I would have to describe myself as a Christian. But I don’t like having to too much, because I feel that I belong to a broader view of the spiritual realm. I don’t mean that Christianity in itself is not broad, but I would not want to associate myself with a parochial view of the spiritual. Religion is fundamental to what I write, yet my religious convictions have not been consistent throughout my life. I have been through lots of different periods, including a period of atheism. Even in the period of atheism, religion provided the main symbolic system of my poetry, which I never lost. So it is a question of how fully you incorporate that symbolism into your life. Whether it’s just a convenient system, or whether it’s something that you profoundly believe in. And I think there are different degrees of commitment to that kind of system. I have been interested in other religions. I am not exclusively Christian. [6]

Have you also practised Buddhism? [7]

The Buddhism in The Mystery of Things was to do with somebody I was emotionally involved with at that time. [8]

Can I ask about the painting you chose for your book cover? [9]

Yes. It’s The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca. It is possible to understand it in several ways. Obviously it is a Christian painting showing Jesus with the stigmata, but it also has a relation to Paganism. It wonderfully combines – as I try to do in my poetry – the spiritual and the physical. This is why the book is called The Mystery of Things. The painter, Piero della Francesca, gives a sense of the substantiality of the body, and yet he is a profoundly spiritual painter. I am interested in the way that the spirit communicates through things. In a way, the things are all we need; we don’t need more than the things. What we call the spiritual – in the book I call it ‘ghostliness’ – seems to me to be in things. That is where I start from. So Christianity, for instance, is very profoundly a religion of the body. It is about the resurrection of Christ; about the death and resurrection in bodily form of a human being. [10]

Would you see the story of the resurrection as a triumph of the body? [11]

I suppose one would have to say it is primarily a triumph of the soul. But it is a triumph of the soul in the body. I don’t really want to separate the two. For instance, the spiritual aspect of love cannot be separated from the physical aspect of love. At the same time I think they are different dimensions. [12]

Do you see the physical things as having a soul within them? [13]

In a way, yes… Can I come at it at a slightly different angle? I am very suspicious of any view of life which tries to devalue the importance of matter. It makes me a little anxious about the very word spirituality, because it is sometimes associated with people who try to suggest that what happens in our bodies is not important; that things are mere things. To me things are what I love much of the time. A picture, like this painting for my book cover, is a thing; it is made out of paint and wood. My furniture: these are things that were owned by my parents and my grandparents, and so they have a human connection for me. Food is a thing, but it’s also what I need to nourish me, to make me fit and healthy and even happy. All those things are terribly important. [14]

Do things inspire you to write poetry? How would you start to write a poem? [15]

It varies a great deal. Sometimes a poem may take many years to happen. I might have the idea but the poem doesn’t happen for – in one case I can think of – twenty years… At other times, you know, we may finish this conversation, I may think of something, and I may write it down, and have a poem. Very often I know that a particular body of subject matter is going to produce a poem. At other times it would be a word or a phrase or a line or even a rhythm or something like that, which would produce the poem. Let’s take my poem Stigmata as an example. The poem is based on an analogy between the pain we suffer when love goes wrong and the pain of the Crucifixion: by extension, the suffering of God through the evil of human beings. That’s an analogy. I was familiar with that analogy from other writers; it’s not an original comparison. But I began to think about that analogy in relation to the situation I was in at the time. After a while I began to see that there was a poem in it. So I spent a lot of time reflecting on that analogy, and then quite out of the blue some lines came to me. The very first line of that poem was spoken to me by somebody else in a conversation, and I saw the words he used as a way into a poem. To me it is very important that a poem is a thing made out of words, just as a painting is a thing made out of paint. So I need words in order to make a poem. A painter can have an idea but he cannot do anything with it until he has a brush, paints, a piece of wood. Similarly, I need to have words, which are much less obviously physical, but still belonging to the human body. We speak with the breath, and the mechanism of the throat. The language that we have is not something that we have invented out of nothing; it is something that we share with other people. For me, words have a substantial presence, just as a painter’s materials do for him. [16]

So, words are your tool to express something, but what is it that you express? [17]

Well, I’m not sure I’d even go as far as that, because I’m not sure I can separate words from the things they express. But perhaps the simplest way I can explain it is with the titles of my main collections of poetry: The Dwelling-Place, Devotions, Of Earthly Paradise, and the most recent, The Mystery of Things. These are all titles about being in the world, and about the attachments that we feel to things in the world; things including, of course, people. The world is mysterious, paradisiacal, a dwelling place where we live, and we feel devotion, attachment to it. [18]

One has to have a critical, analytical structure in language, and yet poetry can describe something quite different – the abstract. How do poets do it? [19]

Ezra Pound was interested in comparing poetry to other arts. He was particularly interested in comparing poetry to sculpture. If you are a sculptor, particularly if you are using stone, the creation of a work of art is an engagement between the artist and an object that already exists in the world, the piece of stone. It is a kind of struggle, a battle. But the heart of the work of art is already there. You need the artist to make it a work of art, but he is making a work of art out of something. That’s what I think of poetry as being. We are making a work of art out of language. Language after all belongs to the race; it is not a private thing. Language already includes meanings. So when you talk about an analytical process in words, that analytical quality is already there in the words. Even when you are a child and you are using words, you are using them critically. Words are not private property; they are out there in the world. You manipulate their meanings, and discover meanings that you hadn’t necessarily anticipated. You say things which you didn’t necessarily mean to say, because the words say them. It is more than just you. When I write a poem it is recognisable as my poem, yet the poem is not just me. My poems are in language, and in a way language is already an art, a communal, collaborative one. When human beings speak, they are creating something. You and I sitting here, talking; this is a miracle. And even more than that, you, Gil, speak another language, Hebrew, and we can talk here in English. And somewhere in English, there is also what English has taken from Hebrew, after all. There are Hebrew words in English, and there is a cultural heritage. So, it is a very rich matter that we create as human beings. [20]

You write about angels in your poems, I believe one is Gabriel, which in Hebrew means the strong hand of God. [21]

It is interesting that you picked that one because my son’s name is Gabriel… [22]

Your poem In The Library ends with the beautiful metaphor of words wanting to be read into the reader. [23]

That poem is very simple in a way: about a girl reading in a library, and rather consciously ignoring me… and I want to be like the words she is attending to. That poem is a good example of what we were saying earlier about the spiritual and the physical and whether words are things or not. That poem is an image of this. It has an erotic dimension to it and also a very spiritual dimension, the absorption of language. I can tell you that this poem’s image fits rather nicely with what I am saying here, but the poem is entirely accidental. I wrote it quite quickly; it was provoked by a particular day, a particular incident on a particular day. [24]

Do you also write about things that are not triggered by events, things that come from somewhere else? [25]

What would somewhere else be? [26]

I am thinking here of the qualities of inspiration itself. For example, a few people can sit and watch the same movie, yet only the poet among them is inspired to write about something that all the others may have seen but perhaps not noticed. [27]

Let’s take the poem Bottom’s Dream. This poem doesn’t have an obvious source event. Of course, when you’ve written a poem like that, you go on to discover that all kinds of events have gone into it unconsciously. But it didn’t originate in an event. [28]

Bottom’s Dream is about Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was asked by the editor of Around the Globe, the house magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, to write a poem, and the only requirement was that the poem had to have something to do with Shakespeare. The name Shakespeare covers almost the whole of my life. I first encountered Shakespeare when I was eight or nine… When I was nineteen I acted in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I played the part of Peter Quince, who is a carpenter, and who writes the ridiculous play with which A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends. He has this complicated relationship with Bottom, the main comic character. Bottom says: ‘I will get Peter Quince to write me a ballad of this dream.’ It is very characteristic of Shakespeare that this never actually happens; there are always loose ends in Shakespeare – things left unresolved at the conclusion. [29]

So, we played that production for quite a few nights. Every night I sat there listening to these lines, and I thought, ‘I want to be a poet, I am Peter Quince, I should write this poem!’ I even started to write it, but I was probably too young. So nearly forty years later, I got this commission from the Globe and sat down and wrote Bottom’s Dream. And it is one of the key poems of my work. But I had no way of knowing that that would happen, because all I was doing was answering the commission. Is that what you meant? [30]

I guess I mean: how do words come to the poet? [31]

Well, maybe we can look at another poem with a Shakespearean title: Much Ado About Nothing. This is a much more abstract poem. It came about from my work as a teacher. I seem very often to teach that the word ‘nothing’ is a very rich and complex one. You think of it as just a negation, but it’s actually enormously significant. Just think of how it occurs in a sentence. In English you can say, ‘I don’t know anything,’ and you can also say, ‘I know nothing.’ Saying ‘I know nothing’ is a little like saying ‘I know a thing which is called nothing.’ Nothing is something… that paradox fascinates me. It is a paradox that Shakespeare plays with a tremendous amount. The pronunciation of nothing in Shakespeare’s time was probably more like ‘noting’. ‘Noting’ means to observe, to take note of, but it also has a sexual connotation. ‘Naught’ meant both zero and vagina, so ‘naughting’ – not very different from ‘noting’ – could mean having sexual intercourse. [32]

I am interested in the way that a word which appears to be of no particular significance can produce all these meanings. So, this poem came out of the fact that I was teaching these things… [33]

What do you think characterises the poet compared with other types of writer? [34]

I suppose there are certain things you need as a poet. Obviously you need to be fascinated by language, but that is not enough. While you are in love with language, you also have to be in love with what is beyond language. Language is, in a sense, an attempt to take possession of the world. A lot of what I write is an attempt to take hold of what I love but can’t really have. What is beyond me. The poem about the girl in the library is a good example: it is about desire for something beautiful and unattainable. [35]

When my mother died I went with my sister to my mother’s house to dispose of my mother’s property, and we realised there was a danger of quarrelling over the possession of things because we knew we would want the same things… So, we made a deal: if one of us said, ‘I want that,’ then the other one wouldn’t disagree. And it worked, surprisingly. In the kitchen there was a table which we both very much associated with our mother. The kitchen was her kingdom, but the table was a very ordinary working table. Anyway, my sister said, ‘I want the kitchen table,’ and so she got it. The next day I got on my bicycle to go to the school where I worked and, by the time I got to school, I already had this poem in my head, The Kitchen Table. It was unconscious; I didn’t think I was going to write about the table. The poem is an attempt to take possession of the table. I hadn’t been able to have the table, so my poem got the table, and there it is permanent. I now feel I have the table. It isn’t just the table, but also the spirit of my mother in the table. I really feel I have it now. In a way, it is better than having the table. If I’d had the table, I don’t think I’d have written the poem… [36]

Imagine all the poems that you don’t write because you already have the things… [37]

That’s right… There is a paradox about poetry which pleases me a lot. Poems are in language so they exist in time; language is temporal. You only understand what I am saying now by listening to me over a period of time. You don’t know what point I am trying to make until I get to the end of the sentence. Therefore, the whole business of appreciating language is temporal. You read a poem, and it takes you a period of time to read it. But a poem is also a thing, it is a kind of monument. It has a shape on the page. You can look at the page and it always looks the same. Every time I open these pages, there the poem is, printed, still there, as if there was no such thing as time. The language that I am speaking now has gone as soon as I’ve spoken it. The poem is stable, monumental and fixed, and it will outlive me; and at the same time the process of reading it is dynamic, engaging in time. [38]

Why do you write poetry? [39]

Writing is at such a deep level of your personality that I think you can’t really know what it is that makes you write. Often you write your best poems when you feel least engaged by the matter, and that’s very odd. I think that in order for a poem to happen, we need to put a part of ourselves asleep. Then something else in the mind can start working. I often find that the best poems I write come about when for some reason part of my mind is occupied with other matters, such as riding my bicycle to work. It is very mysterious. Take the technical aspect of poetry; needing to give a poem a form – for instance, to make it rhyme. Why do we make things rhyme? It seems to me that rhyme does the job of occupying the mind, it takes care of the part of the mind that is good at playing chess, or doing crossword puzzles… The mind is occupied by that. It is effective then in enabling insight. [40]

What is the connection between words and images? [41]

There are some words that are not images, such as the function words: a, the, is. You can have a word without an image but you cannot have an image without a word attached to it. Function words do not represent anything. There is also the sound of words, which is independent of what they signify. Of course the sound tends to get associated imaginatively and emotionally with the significance. Nevertheless, the sound is independent. [42]

What about nonsense poetry? [43]

Well, they do have something we can imagine in them. But could you imagine making a poem that was entirely nonsensical, made up of words which just fitted together syntactically? It wouldn’t be a poem, though it could be verse – you could fulfil the obvious technical requirements of a poem with gibberish. [44]

When I asked John Hegley he suggested that poetry does not necessarily have to be communicative. [45]

Poetry is inherent in language, so all language is potential poetry. Language as we speak it has all the characteristics of poetry: rhythm, music, richness of meaning, analytical and critical qualities. By being a poet one is foregrounding what is already in language. One is trying to take the potential of the language and make it manifest. [46]

What about emotion? Is it part of poetry? [47]

Yes. [48]

Is it part of language? [49]

Yes. Words are loaded with emotions. There are words that appear not to have any emotion in them. I am not sure that the word ‘camera’, for instance, comes to me with any emotion. Perhaps it does to you since you create films using cameras. [50]

What about words which come out of emotion, not necessarily words that carry emotion? [51]

If you use the word ‘desire’, you name the emotion, but it is unlikely that you are going to generate it in the reader’s mind. That’s the problem with abstraction. You have to generate the emotion through other words, which call upon the reader’s experience. ‘I am very angry today’ is not a moving sentence. It is much more powerful to say, ‘There is always something more important than trees’ (to quote from my poem The Apple Trees), than to say, ‘I am very angry about cutting those trees down.’ [52]

The poet has to choose the right words to communicate emotions. [53]

Yes, because communication is not inherently poetry. Communication is practical, you have a message to deliver. The message is in the words. When you receive a parcel in the post with a present inside, you discard the wrapping. The words are the wrapping within which the message comes. You don’t pay much attention to the words in communication. In poetry you do pay attention to the words. In the sense of just communicating a message… I think that is not what poetry is about. [54]

The poet and critic Donald Davie says that there is a misunderstanding about poetry. Poetry is not about addressing the audience, but about addressing the subject. The poet thinks about the subject, writes about the subject, and should not pay too much attention to the reader. The reader is not there to be talked to, the reader is there to hear the poet talking about the subject. The reader is listening. Poems which depend on a relationship with the reader become merely rhetorical. They become ways of moving the reader, deliberately trying to get to the reader’s emotion. That is not how poetry should work. The reader should be moved by the poem just as the poet was moved by the experience that went into it. Not because somebody set out to move the reader, but because there is something intrinsic in the experience that is going to get to the reader. [55]

An intrinsic essence in experiences? [56]

Yes. The 19th century poet Robert Browning was notoriously obscure. Somebody wrote to him saying his poetry was interesting but why could it not be easier to understand his meaning? Browning replied that the poet’s business was with God, not with the reader. I think he meant that the poet had a duty to what exists, to the nature of reality, and the reader’s business was to listen if he wished to. The poet’s duty is to what happens. The analogy would be if you went to the cinema and the characters in the film didn’t talk to each other but talked to the audience instead. What you want is the characters talking to one another, and the audience listening to them. You understand what the film means not from what they tell you, but from appreciating the whole situation. [57]

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22 July 2008. (c) Gil Dekel.
Interview held in Cambridge UK, April 2006 and via email correspondence July 2008.
Clive on Carcanet website