(Gentleman is an Indian magazine: about ten years ago, my old pal from Kolkatta, Debanjan Chakrabarti, wrote up this interview based on my last trip to India. I was just getting some poems together for my next trip — next month — when a search uncovered it. Always instructive to hear what you said just a bit back when.)
William Neil Herbert and I sat on a placid evening inside a cramped hotel room in Prantik on the fringes of Santiniketan and, indeed, of civilisation, with a few bottles of warm beer for company. It had begun as a tentative conversation in the morning when I accompanied William (or Bill, as he insists on being called) to Santiniketan for his readings at the Department of English at Visva Bharati, that venerable institution founded by Rabindranath Tagore. However, in the course of the day, I found out that there was more to this mild-mannered soft-spoken Scot than his intricately textured and mysteriously rhyming poetry. Bill read out a ‘crow’ poem he had composed at the Crossword Bookshop in Chennai, his first stop on his British Council-sponsored tour of India: “Sometimes a crowd of crows in the sky / form a kind of grid / like a crossword without clues – / then they settle on branches like all the answers.”
I was fool enough to mention Ted Hughes’ crow poems.
“That’s one of the problems when you are a Scot,” Bill said quietly, “Everything you write is always judged in the light of the English English poets before you.” That one statement is a good measure of the man. WN Herbert thrives on the conflict between his Scot origins and a literary heritage that is monolithic, domineering and unaccommodating. A grand tradition that is intolerant, myopic, parsimonious, when it comes to acknowledging the existence and contribution of other voices. A habit of condescension that Herbert pithily captures in the phrase “English English.”
The contesting identities of a poet who writes in Scots and English are pitted against each other in the poem ‘Pictish Whispers’: What are the serrations down the tongue, / stitchings in the tissue of language, / half-forgotten graftings of two strains / of rose, like a border between nations / that may tear / grandfather grammar from / the noise my mother tried to make / my larynx take / that now my lover hears as me? (from Forked Tongue, Bloodaxe Books, 1994).
Yet, there are no winners in this contest of divided loyalties. As he writes in the foreword to his 1994 volume: “Herbert speak (sic) with forked tongue.” His three major collections of poems, Forked Tongue, Cabaret McGonagall (Bloodaxe, 1996) and The Laurelude (Bloodaxe, 1998) mix Scots and English at random, forcing the reader to accept him on his own terms.
He was born in Dundee in 1961, and the town remains his “motherboard”, his “problematic roots”. Before WN Herbert happened, Dundee’s claim to literary fame was restricted to William McGonagall, whom literary philistines of his time had dubbed the Worst Poet of the World. Herbert sympathises with this literary simpleton, his namesake. His 1996 selection Cabaret McGonagall is not so much an attempt to rehabilitate the celebrated poetaster as it is an act of faith, of owning up to an undistinguished literary heritage.
Herbert was in a fit of nervous excitement, taking one picture after another with his Kodak use-and-throw camera, as we crossed the Hooghly river by ferry from Howrah to Chandpal Ghat, so smitten he was by the view of Kolkata from the river. It reminded him of the Dundee of his teenage years, which incidentally, was the jute capital of the world, before the mantle was passed on to Kolkata.
Not surprisingly, cityscapes dominate his poetry. His first serious work in Scots was a sequence of poems written when he was 21 about various run-down places in Dundee – cemetries, bus shelters, empty factories – symbols of the “doldrums” he felt Dundee was enduring at that time. A forbidding, almost primal sense of history haunts a majority of his poems. Herbert’s eye for detail is obsessive, and he loves experimenting with stanza and verse forms. The poem ‘Road Movie’ from Cabaret McGonagall, with its almost claustrophobic piling of details, names of places, streets, people, filmstars, its narrative progression through alternation of crystalline verse and liquid prose, its subtle hints and inflection of voices and tones captures the quintessence of Herbert’s poetry in many ways.
Herbert’s sympathy for the outcast and the buffoon, the dead and the damned, finds a new icon in the figure of Stan Laurel (yes, of Laurel and Hardy fame), a comic genius from Ulverston who made it big in Hollywood. The result is The Laurelude. The back-cover says: “For nearly three hundred years Scotland and England were the Laurel and Hardy of nations. For nearly two hundred years, The Prelude was a poem by Wordsworth. Something had to give. As Britain begins to resemble a cut-up by William Burroughs, and the heritage of Robert Burns is flushed down a lavvie in Leith, one verse-monger steps forward to do battle with (or possibly for) cultural chaos.”
And this is how Herbert’s Stan Laurel registers his protest against the English canon: “I wandered lonely as a trout / that doesn’t like to swim in shoals / when all at once I heard a shout / from little prawns that lay on coals / upon the barbies by the lake, / sputtering and charring flesh to flake / Harmonious as the stars that shriek / and whirl around their nightly wheel / they yelled in French and broken Greek / and after this al fresco meal / ten thousand tourists swilled in rills, / flossing their teeth with daffodils.”
Herbert studied at Oxford, from where he obtained a doctorate on Scottish poet Hugh McDiarmid, published subsequently as To Circumjack McDiarmid (Oxford University Press, 1992). The man whose name crops up alongside with Douglas Dunn, Simon Armitage, Kathleen Jamie, Robert Crawford and Don Paterson also teaches creative writing at the University of Lancaster.
Debanjan Chakrabarti: When did you first discover poetry?
William Neil Herbert: When I was fifteen, sixteen. I started reading Keats and Auden in my own time, and I was being taught Bertold Brecht, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins – and the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig, a master of the image and the colloquial tone. So there was this exciting sweep of techniques to digest – Auden alone is a catalogue of forms – and I’ve always been engaged by this idea of range. People talk about poetry as a cerebral art, and forget the sensuous impact of language: I was swept away.
DC: Which poets have influenced you?
WNH: In addition to the above, I started with the Beats, Ginsberg and Kerouac, and stepped sideways to the New York school: John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and above all Frank O’Hara. From these I learnt that poetry could arise from direct observation, but it could also take pleasure in its own textures – that it was more active without the stuffing of ‘significant’ pronouncements. From Scottish poets like Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Morgan and W.S. Graham I learnt that language is not transparent (all language, not just Scots), it is a medium you work with as carefully and as pleasurably as paint or music.
DC: You have spoken about poets who have influenced or inspired you. Are there poets or modes of poetry that you consciously avoid?
WNH: There’s a difference between those poets you avoid in ‘official’ statements, and those you might avoid in the process of writing. In writing I try to stay open to every influence I encounter – and of course there are no greater influence on the English Language than Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth. But it is often the lesser influences that are more distinctive.
I tend to dodge comments about the ‘canon’ because those figures distract many people from what is being written now. It is still possible – lamentable but true – to feel that if you have read Eliot then you’re fully informed about all twentieth-century poetry and need look no further. Shakespeare operates in the same way, standing in for Marlowe, Jonson, Webster, Spenser, etc. Since I come from a small country that is easier to ‘represent’ with a few names than examine in depth, I may be punctiliously circumspect in these matters.
DC: How do you write a poem? What is the process?
WNH: Attention to the world and to the word: I take notes constantly on what I see and what I read. All phrases that come to me through this process get examined for lilt and liveliness – you look for glimpses of measure, hints of the hooks of rhyme and imagery that might draw in a reader. I write over and over the surface of the writing, rearranging phrases, expanding them,
cutting them back, looking for shapeliness. I don’t bother much with theme until I’ve hit a pattern, though, sometimes the theme is pattern, and sometimes you know the theme is so good you’re going to write about it.You just don’ t know when.
DC: Which contemporary poet’s new book do you most look forward to read and why?
WNH: My direct contemporaries I suppose, by which I mean Scottish poets like Kathleen Jamie and Don Paterson, and poets of the North of England like Sean O’Brien. The ones you measure yourself against. And the masters: Morgan, Michael Longley, Paul Durcan. And the dead, who need to be re-read, paradoxically, to keep your own writing alive: Barry MacSweeney, Edmond
Jabes, Patrick Kavanagh. Anything by the Beijing poet Yang Lian, who is the most extraordinary voice I’ve read in translation.
DC: Tell us something about the politics and polemics of writing and publishing poetry in UK today.
WNH: Poetry remains a tribal affair: you are seen as representative of wherever you emanate from, and only a ‘metropolis’ is supposed to be free from the regional tag. But, of course, writing is produced by individuals with no compulsion to be representative or authentic in their utterance. So there remains a constant tension between the supposed arbiters of culture, somehow always found in London — and may be, in your case, Delhi — who can only reflect the interests of that particular village, and those who have built their identities from more diverse ingredients.
There’s currently a cult of the slim volume, in that many writers subscribe to the ‘less is best’ philosophy. In my opinion some of these writers are just chronically incapable of writing very much, and make a fetish out of a failure of nerve. But that’s because I exhibit opposite and equally culpable tendencies.
Historically, the poets that survive more than a century do seem to be copious composers, but that’s no guide. Attention spans have shrunk, and a poet who isn’t describable on the back of a beermat (preferably because of something he or she has done, as opposed to something they have written), is too much trouble. Let’s not discuss those who dare to depart from the same few tricks and actually develop!
But the real problem in publishing poetry at present is that the shops which sell it appear to assume that it must be sold in the same way as novels – if it hasn’t gone in the first month it’s a failure. Whereas poetry is there to resist fashion.
DC: I find a very engaging tension between your twin identities as a Scots and an English writer. (For obvious reasons, most Indians who have access to your poems will empathise with this conflict.) Are they two different and distinct poetic personalities?
WNH: As a Scotsman who lives in England with an English wife, this is a very sensitive question! Obviously I’d like to feel I’d integrated my various identities, some of which are distinguished from each other in terms of class as well as experience. Equally obviously it is not possible fully to succeed, and poetry is often the product of interesting failures.
Poems are sometimes caused by the impact of powerful languages on equally powerful personalities, and poets are more enabled than disabled by having more than one personality to bring to bear on those collisions. Sometimes the poetry is in the surrender of what we believe to be our personality to what we believe to be a personality within language.
It’s sometimes suggested that a Scots writer finds more emotional depth in visceral Scots than in thoughtful English. I’d argue that the intellect is not neatly divisible from the body, and for me Scots is as fuzzed with cerebrality as English is with sensuosity. However, what two languages give us, however closely linked, is access to more of what it is to be human, and this is the basic nutrient of verse.
DC: Apart from poets and poetry, what other things have influenced your poetry?
WNH: Cities: their way of packing people into history. The traces of past modes of thought in architecture, in industry, in photographs, in the packaging and materials people live with, the programmes they watch or listen to, the books they read or don’t read, the state of the gutters in the street. We can no more recover the past than we can access the motors within us that cause us to change or decay, but we can contemplate the past alongside the present, and through both construct impressions of culture, possible political agendas, and literatures.
DC: What other art forms feed your poetry?
WNH: Music: the literate lyricist was always important to me, whether that was Mark E. Smith or Captain Beefheart – total open experimentalists in their approach to language and musical construction. Composers: in terms of finding literary analogies, whether to Mozart, Dizzy Gillespie or Schnittke – whatever made me jump as a listener I wanted to do in terms of language.
With painting it’s a similar matter of trying to find a poetic technique with can equate somehow with the shock I get from Byzantine icons or Fra Angelico – the Spanish whether it’s Goya or Picasso. Something in me gets hit by art that’s not simply intellectual: I’ve always drawn, I occasionally paint very badly, but that’s no excuse…
DC: Do you think poetry has a role/responsibility in our present times, and if so, what are they?
WNH: Poetry is evidence for the possible existence of the soul, something those who shoot people or keep them in near-slavery are trying to deny. It’s an indication that language can reflect the world back in an intense and passionate manner, and that the users of language are important, not just commodities. It’s a suggestion as to how language can be employed for purposes other than propaganda and salesmanship: it tries to clean the lens instead of covering it with a policeman’s palm. But what it can’t do is utter the word ‘should’ in relation to society – that’s a highly dangerous term only its readers have responsibility for. Songs change us, they don’t
tell us how to change.
[The reading at Santiniketan over, we make our way back to Kolkata. The conversation goes on sporadically between cups of lemon tea with rock salt, punctuated by beggars who sing Tagore songs.]
DC: As a teacher, how would you rate the popularity of poetry with the younger generation?
WNH: The audience for poetry remains in inverse proportion to the producers of poetry: almost everyone writes it, almost no one reads it. It’s a basic human action which signals change – adolescence, love, grief, birth and bereavement. But the poetry written by those who don’t read is almost invariably bad, just as a car built by someone with a skimpy knowledge of engines won’t go very far. To the extent to which people read poetry, they begin to improve, and this is where education can have some role.
Poetry feeds the ego but is not a product of it; it is manufactured by the whole being. A poetry of the ego is limited to what the ego notices, i.e. is it or isn’t it being worshipped? If you teach only the techniques of poetry, you don’t access the whole self, and the student produces limited work. But it is possible to work with a student’s gifts, and extend them as far as those gifts will go (we can’t all be a Tagore). In that sense, the future is at least accessible to change, even when we can’t predict what that change will be.
DC: If you were a painter, what would be the colour of your canvas?
DC: What is your worst nightmare as a poet?
WNH: Being seen purely as a Scottish writer who has nothing to offer a non-Scottish reader. Being seen as someone who doesn’t fully express himself in English, and can only be properly ‘appreciated’ in Scots. People, often English people who do not then go on to appreciate me in either language, try this on as a means of keeping me (and Scots) in a box.
It should be understood that it is a primary characteristic of bilingual people (if Scots can be so described) that they are bilingual, i.e. that they have something to say across their languages that cannot be contained in either of them.
DC: Do you think performance poetry is given more attention than it deserves just because it has an immediate appeal and a wider market?
WNH: I don’t think performance poetry is given more attention than it deserves, I just feel poetry in general is given less attention than it could have had. It is, of course, possible to confuse the immediacy of performance with the intensity of the poetic experience, and people tend to shy away from intensity unless someone else is enacting it in front of them and it’s impolite to leave.
But immediacy is useless without memory, which is the one faculty contemporary culture seems determined to do without. Poetry is a negotiation with history and with forgetting history, and sub-dividing poetry according to what sells seems to me to be missing the point.
I am strongly influenced by the powerful performers of poetry I have witnessed, Benjamin Zephaniah among them, and just as strongly affected by the powerful poets I have never heard, just encountered on a page in my own time and under the limitations of my own flawed attention.
DC: What’s beyond or after writing?
[All of a sudden the skies alongside the rails darken. It starts to drizzle softly at first. Then, with the unpredictability of a Kaalbaishakhi — Bengal’s seasonal norwester — the clouds roar down a deluge. The drumming of rains on the sooty window panes inspire Bill into a confession.]
WNH: You know, this reminds me of the Lake District, where I was in residency as the Wordsworth Fellow. It’s incredibly beautiful, and you go there expecting to live Wordsworth’s lines out daily and walking through “spots of time” every hour. But once there, you realise nobody has ever told you that it rains ALL the time. I wonder if there was a deal between the tourist board and Wordsworth to leave the rain out of his poetry. But the rain poured itself into one of my poems, and I hope that settles the score:
It’s raining stair-rods and chairlegs,
it’s raining candelabra and microwaves,
it’s raining eyesockets.
When the sun shines through the shower
it’s raining the hair of Sif,
each strand of which is real gold
The sky is one vast water-clock
and it’s raining seconds, it’s raining years;
already you have spent more of your life looking at the rain
that you have sleeping, cooking, shopping and making love
It’s raining fusilli and capeletti,
it’s raining mariners and albatrosses,
it’s raining iambic pentameters
It is raining through the holes in God’s string vest.
(From ‘The Black Wet’, The Laurelude)