I am in Love with Poetry
When the times are brutal and the news is all lies, great poets experience our loneliness for us.
As Andrew O’Hagan prepares to complete a journey around the British Isles begun with Seamus Heaney, he reflects on his lifelong immersion in poetry, and celebrates poets as risk-takers and miracle-workers
The bus down from Glasgow was a thing of legend. The city dissolved in a haze of orange lamps and the person beside you would toast the new life with a can of Carlsberg. It was a long night’s journey into day, and London’s King’s Cross, the place of arrival, was a different world then, with cobbled streets below and Victorian gasometers above, in the days before Eurostar and the revived St Pancras Hotel and the walkways and the Guardian. I remember a little cafe that was housed beneath the arches, a place with 1950s wallpaper, dirty windows and a matriarch in a plaid tabard who offered mugs of tea from a gushing samovar. “New, are you?” she asked. And over hard English rolls and bacon – I’d never known hard rolls before – she said the thing to do if you wanted to explore was to check your bag in at the cloakroom of the British Museum. I said that was nice of her and she gave me another tea and drew me a map of Bloomsbury.
A poet is a writer with a scrupulous spirit, that’s what books had taught me, so I came to London with a volume of Scottish verse and an essay I’d written about Wallace Stevens. In the museum I found a room filled with glass cabinets; they contained manuscript pages by well-known writers, and I couldn’t get over them, those wonderboxes, one of them showing Keats’s Lamia and another the inkings of Philip Larkin. I’ll only speak about dead poets here, and not because death becomes a poet, but because the greatness of newer poets is a magical course to me, and I won’t throw out the bairns with the memorial bathwater. I am in love with poetry and nothing is better than a fresh volume by a poet you admire. Ian Hamilton, that ace writer and recidivist encourager and denouncer of poets, could talk about Matthew Arnold as if the saint of high culture was about to walk through the doors of the Gay Hussar. He was present to him. And that is how I’ve always felt about Burns, or Yeats, or Tennyson, or Frank O’Hara. If great poetry helps you to live your life, then what is it exactly that a person can gain from the memorable speech of ghosts?
Andrew O’ Hagan in 1983, during the time he worked in a shoe shop to fund his book habit. Andrew O’ Hagan in 1983, during the time he worked in a shoe shop to fund his book habit
I remember my first acquaintance with poetry better than I remember my first roll in the hay. (Only one of them used the rhythm method, but we won’t go into that.) It was Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, given to me by a woman in our street when she saw that I cried too much after falling off a swing. She said I was “sensitive”, which was code, round our way, for being the ringleader of the Stonewall riots. Never mind, I thought, it’s worth the stick, because this woman is going to give me free books. And those poems were curious music, as Stevenson would say himself, verses about having a shadow, having adventures, escaping to the stars and making journeys to the Land of Nod. I was all set, and was soon enough badgering the poor teachers at St Winning’s primary school for poetry in abundance. I was one of those pests who, while learning to read, would photograph the page in my mind as opposed to following the words. Mrs Wallace would make me stand at her desk, travelling down the page with a ruler under each line, and I’d rattle away, guessing at the lines to come, and she’d lift the ruler and wrap my knuckles. “Off by heart!” she would shout. “You’re reading it off by heart!”
Teachers were crucial to the sick roses of the English class. In years to come, my friend Karl Miller would often talk about Hector MacIver, his talented teacher at the Royal high school in Edinburgh, and what he remembered was a “club of inquiry”. I had something similar, later on, with a teacher called Mrs McNeill, the flame-haired beauty of St Michael’s, who kept me back after school to train me for exams, with the help of WB Yeats. My school was in the middle of a housing estate on the west coast of Scotland, and you’d hear shouts outside, dogs barking, as the lights of the classroom burned in the early dark. We’d spend an hour discussing the meaning of “gyres”, or rap the table to mimic the rhythm of “The Second Coming”. The school cleaners would be mopping out in the corridors, and, even today, I can’t smell pine cleaning fluid without feeling the inner life of those poems floating back to me. For good or for ill, it was really poetry that made me a writer, the link we made in that class from the Irish bard to the work of Burns, our local poet, and from there to the novels of Thomas Hardy.
A poet could be a risk-taker, a miracle-maker, a moral panjandrum and a convict of the senses; a poet could divine the landscape, search the heart, shape a living argument about the complications of reality, and a poet could write a novel. The question of landscape was crucial. The world of Wessex was a thing of language, and it wasn’t borne on air or planted with trees but fully figured by the mind of the writer, in words and images. In some sense, great poets are the landscape they magic into being. The place isn’t quite there – not imaginatively – without them. Wordsworth carries the Lakes, Emily Brontë carries Yorkshire, Heaney is Ireland and Pope is the difficult London of his day. When the critic Richard Poirier went to see Robert Frost, he was struck by the extent to which the poet was the place he wrote about. “New England is of course evoked in the scenes and titles of many of his poems,” wrote Poirier, “and, more importantly, in his Emersonian tendencies … His special resemblance to New England, however, is that he, like it, has managed to impose upon the world a wholly self-created image.”
Seamus Heaney - Seamus Heaney in the cloisers at Iona
When eventually I met a poet, Norman MacCaig, he was like a superstar to me, possessing a strong Scots accent of the mind. And he looked like Scotland, too: he was handsome, outlying, dramatic, a mountain of a man with shadows on his face. His eye was intelligent and it watered with a kind of permanent empathy. If he was patriotic, it wasn’t obvious – “My only country / is six feet high / and whether I love it or not / I’ll die / for its independence” – but his way of speaking constituted a living argument for seeing things from both sides. The merit of poetry was its feeling for the common ground, feeling in both senses, and I remember imagining as he spoke that a good novelist might share the poet’s healthy ambivalence. Too much certainty might play well for a politician but it’s bad for a writer, and poetry, to me, listening to MacCaig, was the art of plurality and the war against certainty. Even after Henry James, and the figure in the carpet, and even after critical theory, and the death of the author, we still don’t quite know how to discuss the way a writer is both present and absent from a work of fiction. But poets have always known it, and the play of selfhood in a good collection is inspiring to me. With his old head up, and his elegant fingers turning the pages, I can still see MacCaig reading from “Summer Farm”:
Self under self, a pile of selves I stand
Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand
Lift the farm like a lid and see
Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.
Nobody would have thought to ask, as they do perpetually of novelists, to what extent the speaker in the work was strictly the author, a man born in Edinburgh. The voices in the poems show that nobody is simply one thing, and there’s freedom in that for a young writer wanting to meet people, including himself. There lies liberty, and growth hormones. You have to learn to be a writer and in poetry you find an elemental source, like the perfect forms on the cave wall of Plato’s Republic. “Poetry creates the myth,” said Jean-Paul Sartre, “the prose writer draws its portrait.”
That’s why, while many a good poet can write a novel, very few people who are primarily novelists will ever write a good poem. Hardy, of course, is the patron saint of exceptions, and there are a few brilliant examples besides him, but readers will search hard to find that multitude of writers known for their obsession with plot and character who can turn, when it suits, to the making of a beautiful villanelle. John Updike was a prose master, a maker of fictions that still radiate with significance 50 years after they were written, but do readers recall any one of the poems in his nine collections? (OK, we still remember “Cunts (Upon Receiving the Swingers Life Club Membership Solicitation)”, but that doesn’t count.) Can anybody remember James Joyce’s poems, Vladimir Nabokov’s, Muriel Spark’s? Ernest Hemingway was an architect of the English sentence, or the American sentence if you prefer, but his poetry will be happily forgotten, not least because of the following effort, among his best:
Andrew O'Hagan, Karl Miller and Seamus Heaney. Andrew O’Hagan, Karl Miller and Seamus Heaney
Lives of football men remind us,
We can dive and kick and slug,
And departing leave behind us,
Hoof prints on another’s mug.
He wrote this when he was very young, but his later efforts are worse. And you wonder if Papa wasn’t always at war with his broken lyre. He knew poetry was a chief resource, but the competitive muse was always present with him. In 1936 in Key West, he took enormous pleasure in slapping Stevens into a puddle. The poet was 20 years older, but the novelist, in a letter to Sara Murphy, clearly sees it as a fight over style. “Mr Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that. And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn’t harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr working on him … I think he is really one of those mirror fighters who swells his muscles and practises lethal punches in the bathroom while he hates his betters.”
I remember sitting in a pub in Sligo with the greatest poetry critic in the world. I won’t name her outright because she has a horror of being named, but, during the evening, she unfurled a series of stories about great poets she had known, and the trouble they had living with themselves, or their talent, or both. With gentle understanding she caught what poets take on, the sense that many people share without knowing it, that great poets experience some of our loneliness for us. We spoke of Robert Lowell and Dylan Thomas and the Stevens family household in Connecticut. We spoke of other things but we kept coming back to poetry and the menace of forgetting what you couldn’t live without. It was good to hear Yeats at 1am in the corner of an old Sligo pub.
Yet they were of a different kind
The names that stilled your childish play
They have gone about the world like wind
But little time had they to pray,
For whom the hangman’s rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
Maybe the optimists are right; maybe poetry does help you live your life. And maybe they are more right than they know, and it rounds you out for death, “the dark backing that a mirror needs”, as Saul Bellow writes in Humboldt’s Gift, “if we are to see anything”. Bellow’s novel is perhaps the best ever written about a poet – better than Pale Fire, better than Doctor Zhivago – because it understands the problems of poetry and it divines, with elegance, how society might look to poetry for an argument against barbarity. And where the times are brutal and the banks are deluded and the adverts are venal and the news is all lies, perhaps the madness of poets represents the rage of the imagination against the viciousness of reality. “I could see that Humboldt was pondering what to do between then and now,” writes Bellow, “between birth and death, to satisfy certain great questions. Such brooding didn’t make him any saner.” Yet the world is more than the settled mind, said John Clare, Robert Fergusson, Arthur Rimbaud and Sylvia Plath. It is more than our ordered sense of it, and poetry is the least servile of all our forms. That is why I love it.
Seamus Heaney on the Isle of Iona, summer 2012. Photograph: Andrew O'Hagan
The main character in Tennessee Williams’s early play Battle of Angels sells shoes and writes poems on the shoe boxes. I never did that, but I understood the basic instinct, and I once had a Saturday job in a shoe shop to pay for books. I’d go to a bookshop in Ayr after work sometimes and buy the poems of Edwin Muir or Kenneth Rexroth, as if owning a volume or two might steel your nerve and sharpen your pencil. Three decades later, driving through the same landscape with Seamus Heaney, I found there was more laughter in the poetry game than I’d imagined. After trips to Scotland, Ireland and Wales, we made a final trip to the Isle of Iona, the place where Colum Cille had landed with his party of Irish monks. I knew it would appeal to Seamus, the field of dead Scottish kings and the sound of the sea in the sidechapel of the abbey, and I took pictures as we walked down to the sea. I reminded Seamus of a moment in Adomnán’s Life of St Columba, where the great man summons the snakes out of the sea. It was a crossing point for us, that island, the royal bog men and the birth of Christianity in Scotland. Two of the friends on that trip are now dead, but I still see Seamus, that morning by the bay, looking over to the Isle of Staffa and talking up the legend of Fingal’s Cave. As he looked out, a blackbird hopped on to a wall. Seamus saw its yellow beak and a sunbeam hit the grass.
“Miraculous,” he said, and I took a picture.
It was the last day of our trip and the ferry soon appeared in Iona Sound. Later, as the boat sailed out, I looked back and imagined my friends again in the cloisters, where the monks had once come from Ireland to give the locals an education in belief. I imagined those men in the seventh century adding colour to the illuminated book they had started at Kells. And I thought of Seamus’s poem “The Blackbird of Glanmore”, the last word, a mythic quality over the Sound, reaching into our lives as the day poured into the future. We’d agreed on a final trip to the Isle of Wight, to bring England into the fold, visiting Tennyson’s house. But Seamus and Karl didn’t make it, and in two weeks I will set out on that journey on my own. I will think of them. I want to find the place where In Memoriam began, and I want to light a candle there, remembering the poet’s words, now another bright glow in the common memory:
On the grass when I arrive,
Filling the stillness with life,
But ready to scare off
At the very first wrong move.
In the ivy when I leave.
It’s you, blackbird, I love.
The Illuminations, Andrew O’Hagan’s new novel, is published by Faber.
Cover Image: Andrew O’Hagan. Photograph: Tricia Malley & Ross Gillespie