Friday, April 03, 2015

`We're All the Servants of the Language'

“I mean, we’re all the servants of language. One hears so much about personality and people, but these things matter so much less. The service a poet does is not to his blessed personality or to any other minor cause. It is to the language. It is what he has done in the end for the language, which is not an abstract thing: it is the invention of words that last.” 

Between 1989 and 1992, Clive Wilmer interviewed poets for the Poet of the Month show on BBC Radio 3. Poets Talking (Carcanet, 1994) collects the transcripts of nineteen of the conversations, plus two interviews not recorded for the program. In my experience, conversations with poets and most other writers differ little from conversations with plumbers or dental hygienists, except for the heights of their pretentiousness. They want to talk about themselves, trumpet their accomplishments, kiss ass and vent grudges. If anything, poets are even more insufferably self-serving than the rest of us. Wilmer, perhaps with the aid of judicious editing, is good at getting his poets to talk about things worthwhile and interesting. 

The passage above, recorded in 1989, is drawn from the interview with C.H. Sisson (1914-2003), who lives up to his articulate, forthright, Swiftian reputation. His conversation is the most interesting in the book, rivalled only by Les Murray’s. Wilmer quotes the final line of Sisson’s “Taxila” (God Bless Karl Marx!, 1987), a poem named for the ancient city in India (since 1947, Pakistan) visited by the poet during World War II: “For now I know, only the past is true.” Sisson responds: 

“Well, the future is imaginary, the present is happening and that only leaves the past to be true; and it leaves the past as, in a sense, all of a piece. Once a thing is done, it belongs to the past. When you write a poem, you write it in the context of the great poets of the past, not of whatever happens to be reviewed at the moment.” 

In both of the passages quoted, Sisson defers not to himself, the poet with a “blessed personality,” but, in the first, to the language itself; and then to the past and by extension, to literary tradition. A writer, in his scheme, is a servant – of language, of an inherited body of work. One adds to the former by obeying, not always without difficulty, the latter. Sisson closes the interview with these words: 

“I believe less and less—and this may be just a symptom of old age—in the ability of one person to understand another or in one’s own ability to find words which in any way capture what one sees in the world around one. And there are poems in which I go so far as to say one shouldn’t be writing these poems because language is not up to it. But of course, it’s all we have, and I would say that poetry is the nearest thing to human speech we have. That is to say, if human beings can marginally manage to speak to one another, they surely do that in great poetry as nowhere else.” 

Until the final sentence, Sisson sounds almost like Beckett, doubting his ability to say precisely what he is saying. “The Best Thing to Say” is a poem written in the mid-nineties, when Sisson was in his eighties, and published in Collected Poems (1998): 

“The best thing to say is nothing
And that I do not say,
But I will say it, when I lie
In silence all the day.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

And yet, surely, Mr Kurp, you will be aware of the irony of your having written a blog post in which, presumably, you hope to communicate something of significance about the near impossibility of communicating anything of significance? In the end we do communicate, don't we?