Jeremy Hooker

Quarrying Wales: Talking to Jeremy Hooker

Colin Edwards talks to  Jeremy Hooker, whose Selected Poems is to be published by Shearsman in July, alongside a new book of critical writing, Art of Seeing: Essays on Poetry, Landscape Painting, and Photography.

Colin Edwards: I first encountered you, Jeremy, some thirty years back, shortly before the MA in Creative Writing was launched at Bath Spa University in 1992: you became its first Course Director. And I know that much of your own creative writing at that time – insofar as it was about different places – was concerned with the experiences of living in Europe (Holland in particular). You also drew, in Our Lady of Europe (1997), upon your travels into the ancient lands where Christianity was born, which were places of religious conflict and war. I was, of course, aware of the earlier days in your teaching career at Aberystwyth University, but I still recall feeling a small sense of shock on the day that you told me you were shortly to be returning to Wales, to be Professor of English at the University of Glamorgan.

Why should I have been at all surprised? – Perhaps because I had long been most familiar with your earlier poetry, such as Solent Shore (1978), which (albeit that it was written in Wales) dealt with the places near to the south of England where you first came into the world. Of course, with another twenty years of reading your critical writings on modern Welsh writers, and using The Cut of the Light, Poems 1965-2005, I have come to understand more of the depth and duration of your sense of `belonging to Wales’.

I wonder if you can understand, as you look back at that return of yours to Wales, or in some way interpret my sense of its unexpectedness? … (Of course, part of that is owing to the simple fact that, near to that time, you had been so very ill – in hospital and convalescing – just before you left Bath.)

Jeremy Hooker: The stroke marked practically the end of my life at Bath Spa University, the most exciting part of which had been the time teaching with Les Arnold, and with you and other colleagues on the MA in Creative Writing, which Les had founded, and persuaded me to direct. I owed a great deal to this course, but in the end I found that it was exhausting my own energy as a writer, so when, [as I was] recovering sufficiently from the stroke, the opportunity arose of a job at The University of Glamorgan, I was all the more eager to accept it, because it meant returning to teaching literature alone. Then, going back to Wales was both an adventure and a wrench.

It was a wrench because it meant leaving friends, and exchanging Frome and the Somerset landscape, so close to Wiltshire and with easy access to my original home between New Forest and coast, for post-industrial South Wales. This indeed was also part of the adventure, since I entered an area new to me, with a landscape and a history that I was keen to understand, as well as a stranger could.  And stranger is the key word.

It was a different Wales to which I returned. The life of South Wales is quite other than the Welsh-speaking rural life of Ceredigion. Moreover, most of the friends with whom I had collaborated in helping to promote ‘Anglo-Welsh’ literature were no longer alive. I made new friends, mainly of a younger generation, such as Christopher Meredith and Fiona Owen, but I no longer felt part of a literary movement. As far as my poetry was concerned, the chief influence that entered my life in this period was that of Anne Cluysenaar. Anne, who lived on a smallholding close to the Usk Valley, was very much a stranger. Belgian by birth, she had adopted Irish nationality, and was a fine poet writing in English, who now lived within the territory that had been home to Henry Vaughan, a poet with whom she entered into ‘conversation.’ I had been aware for some years that my original sense of belonging, if not a romantic fantasy, was unsustainable: I was a visitor to the New Forest and the coast, not a man with ‘roots’.  Anne, as a poet, and as a reader of my poetry, helped me to know myself as a stranger.

This, I think, has been a key to my later poetry, though it isn’t easy to say in a few words how or why. First, though, there is the fact of the Welsh experience of South Wales, in relation to history, community, and landscape. As a stranger who respects this deeply, it is something that I seek to understand, as well as a person not born to it can. Where I was now living, on the edge of a quarry that had supplied stone for the making of the local mine, the Deep Navigation, became a subject to explore in my writing. At the same time, I was seeing the historical life from which I had come in greater depth – hence poetry such as Ancestral Lines, and the critical scope of Ditch Vision. More subtly, I was learning more about what it means to be a ‘marginal’ poet. I don’t simply mean a poet with few readers; nor am I referring to alienation. I mean, rather, a poet forced to confront the question: what is poetry for, in our time? How can we make poems that speak out of our depths, in a culture that exalts superficiality? What is the true self – the soul – in a world of competing egos? How can poetry be part of a truly human conversation? What does it mean to speak of the sacred? How express our place within the web of nature?

It would be absurdly pretentious to imply that I sit down to write a poem with these questions in mind. Once I harboured a notion of poetic impersonality. What survives of this is my wish to make poems that are objects in words, not soft-centred confessions. I know now, however, that I am essentially a lyric poet, which means that I write out of my mind and heart. And these and similar questions are integral to my wondering about what poetry is, and what in our time it is for.  Thus understood, as a questioning art at the edge of all certainties, the marginal, as a critic of the American Objectivists said, isn’t a bad place to be. It’s a place of exploration, in which one seeks, through poetry, to know truths about human being and nature. I can’t say that I would have realised this if I hadn’t lived – twice, in different circumstances – in Wales.

CE: I think I can imagine, given what you say about the quite different cultural constituents of the `later’ Glamorgan and the `earlier’ Ceredigion, that you might well have been in a better position, second time round, to take on the – not easy? – uneasy? – position of English Lecturer within a Welsh University. Perhaps, as a lover of English Romantic poetry, you had acquired some of the benefits of being able to look back (and learn) from that Earlier Self – the aspiring and young writer – finding his way, and his `voice’, in an unknown country, in the later 1960s?

JH: The period from 1965, when I arrived in Wales to teach modern English literature at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, was an emotionally turbulent one for me, as well as an education. Beginning from a position of ignorance, I learned about the existence of a non-English culture, deep-rooted in time, and fully alive to the pressures of the twentieth century. As a monoglot Englishman (despite several attempts to learn Welsh), I could never enter fully into the reality of Welsh-speaking Wales, which remained for me a fascinating ‘other’. At that time, my poetic ambitions were conventional. I had had early success, with poems published in Faber’s Poetry Introduction 1 and a long poem chosen by my friend, the innovative novelist B. S. Johnson, to appear in Transatlantic Review. The latter even gained me the interest of a literary agent, but in spite of her, and my, best efforts, I failed to secure a commercial publisher. At the same time, I was finding friends among ‘Anglo-Welsh’ writers, notably Roland Mathias, editor of The Anglo-Welsh Review. Roland encouraged me to write criticism, and both he and the editors of Poetry Wales and Planet, published my essays and poems. With my life in Wales, my attitude as a poet changed from thinking of poetry as primarily a means of self-expression to belief in poetry as an exploratory art, which seeks common depths, and delves into our ‘place’ in the world. David Jones’s ‘One is trying to make a shape out of the very things of which one is oneself made’ became talismanic for me.

From first to last my relationship with Wales has been a love affair. It began with my love of a Welsh-speaking girl who introduced me to the mystery and beauty of her land, and, with her departure to marry another man, its elusiveness.  During the 70s I lived with my first wife, Sue, at Brynbeidog, a cottage in Llangwyryfon, a scattered village in the hill country south of Aberystwyth. It was a semi-wild area to which curlews returned with their eerie cries early in March, and our surroundings echoed with cuckoos calling in late April and May. These were the years in which our children were born, and in which, in spite of my love of the area, I yearned to return to my original home in the south of England, where I felt I belonged.  I was a devoted teacher, but an ill-fitting academic in an English department rife with tensions. I experienced spells of depression (such as I’d first known at the onset of puberty), including a period of agoraphobia. Now, too, I recovered my original love of nature, inspired by the stream, the Beidog, that gave our cottage its name, the surrounding fields, and the bare uplands of Mynydd Bach.  I worked in a small caravan, sometimes battered by rain and wind, or drowned in a sea of fog. I loved the elemental beauty, which contrasted with the gentler chalkland and forest landscapes of my original home country. My first pamphlet collection of poems was called The Elements; during the same decade I published four volumes of poetry, three of them (Soliloquies of a Chalk Giant, Landscape of the Daylight Moon, and Solent Shore) set almost exclusively in Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire.  After some ten years, I felt confident enough to draw on my experience of living in Wales, and wrote the ‘Under Mynydd Bach’ sequence of poems. I can’t possibly sum up the decade – can we summarise a day, an hour? It was a time of love and joy and desperation, when Sue and the children and our friends and neighbours helped me to keep my balance, and I sometimes had to dig the garden (which I loved doing) and get mud on my shoes, before I could face going down to the tensions of my life in the university.

I became a literary critic out of excitement and a sense of justice. As I was learning about Anglo-Welsh literature and Welsh–language poetry in translation, so I was encountering Charles Olson and the new American poetry. Discovering the work of David Jones and John Cowper Powys at roughly the same time, and being intensely excited by their work, I sought to know it better, and to share what I found. Neither had been written about much at that time. Roland Mathias and other good ‘Anglo-Welsh’ poets had been little received in their own country, and like most Welsh writers were ignored in England. I felt there was critical work worth doing; and in drawing attention to writers who deserved to be better understood, and better known, I was also educating myself. That, in a word, was what the first phase of my life in Wales had been. For all its conflicts and tensions and oversensitivity (it isn’t easy being an Englishman in Wales!), it had been an education. It had given me friendships and useful work and a sense of purpose as teacher and critic. It had helped me to find my ‘ground’ as a poet. It had been what my life in Wales continues to be in a later phase: a love affair.

CE: It’s good to hear you reaffirm the value of active reading – of a personal discovery of traditions which we (the reader) should never wish, simply, to reproduce: your notion of being a stranger – one who doesn’t easily belong – can, I take it, be offered as a kind of growing – of becoming and being open to difference? That’s undoubtedly something that I’ve sensed, in you, as a lifelong project – and often, I think, that comes from reading the (several) books of your very distinctive Journal-writing (which I want to come back to). But before that, I would like to pursue a little further our `retrospective’ enquiry!  You are in your eightieth year, I believe? So, I think we can partly surmise that your earliest infancy and boyhood were to take their individual shape and direction in the context of international turbulence. World War. Is it possible for you to say how those –  presumably destabilising, but shaping – events may have entered into the growing life of a (very) young creative writer?

JH: My first real memory of anything was of being carried down into the Anderson shelter during an air-raid, and my most vivid memory is of my brother David carrying me out of the house at night to see a German bomber, caught among searchlights, coming down like a flaming star. At that time, we lived at Warsash, beside the Hamble River, and between Portsmouth and Southampton, towns which I first knew as badly damaged by the Blitz, with craters exposing insides of shattered houses and geological strata. It was a material world that I knew and was fascinated by from the start, and it included war debris as well as natural flotsam washed up among the shingle. One anecdote containing an image that affected me strongly involved someone picking up a glove with the hand still in it; another was the report of a Roman legionary, intact in his armour, dredged out of the ooze at Clausentum (Roman Southampton). Historical and prehistorical objects seized my imagination from the beginning, and I found a picture book of British History, from cave men and women and woolly mammoths to the Spitfire, which my mother bought me at Woolworths, particularly inspiring. Before I could read, my mother read or recited poems to me, and among those I loved most were Southey’s ‘After Blenheim’, which evoked human relics of an earlier war, and Tennyson’s ‘Break, break, break’, which became integral to my love of waves washing over shingle.

Looked after by my father and mother, and with two protective older brothers, I had a comfortable life as a child. I watched from the garden gate as American tanks went past on the way to prepare for the Normandy landings, but I have no memory of suffering hardships. We had a well-stocked garden and kept chickens, and no one I loved was wounded or killed. Years later I saw the war through the experience of poets, such as Alun Lewis and Keith Douglas, and studied the literature of the First World War. I realized how lucky I’d been, in many ways, and any tendency to indulge my small fund of war stories was chastened by a sense of the reality I hadn’t known. This was reinforced by the moral lessons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Thoughts on the Baptism of D. W. R’, and Humphrey Jennings’ ‘A Diary for Timothy’, both of them addressed movingly to a child of my generation, and shaming in view of the lessons we had not learnt from the war. The whole period became important for me retrospectively, as I responded to war poetry, and grew into a socialist, anti-militarist politics in tune with post-war reconstruction and the threat of nuclear war. What I remember of childhood in the forties, however, is largely a well-protected life of innocent pleasures, and the beginnings of an imaginative life strongly influenced by poetry and by a sense of history embodied in the physical groundwork of place.

CE: You bring that moment in history – and its collision with your child’s-eye view of landscape – back to us so very directly, with your use of sharp visual suggestions. You’ve noted your mother’s interest in words and poetry, so perhaps it’s also pertinent to mention your father here, who was a very good painter: I see it’s his work, `Road to Keyhaven’, you’ve chosen for the front cover of the forthcoming Selected Poems!  – So, there were certainly familial influences around you, from the first, which have partly guided you towards writers like Thoreau, Gilbert White and Dorothy Wordsworth and other Romantic diarists who, in turn, made possible the work of the Victorian poet-naturalist, Richard Jefferies. You have often drawn attention to his clarity, his particularity – to his `quickness’ (a word that derives from the great Welsh visionary, Henry Vaughan). You have also written poems showing how you share a great love of the paintings of John Constable, who surely influenced your father, with American poets like George Oppen and James Schuyler: at one point, within your quite recent Word and Stone (2019), you call, `in this/age of public ruin’/ … for a renewal of interest in the `small things -/cell, or seed, or word’.

An even more directly personal guide to you during the period between your two periods in Wales – and a person who, you’ve told me, encouraged you to give more attention to the sort of writing covered by diary and journal-writing – was your second wife, Mieke Davies. The time that you spent in Holland with Mieke (apparently retired from academic life and freer to travel widely as a free-lance writer) was really formative too. Could you enlarge a little more on the ways in which this (late 1980s/1990s) period `between’ your two extensive experiences of living in Wales – when you published Our Lady of Europe and also several of the Journals – changed you as a writer?

JH: My life opened up in the 80s, as the title (Openings) of my journal of that period suggests. The Netherlands became for me another ‘ground’ and stimulated my thinking about the relationship between poets and place. I became friendly with Rutger Kopland, the major Dutch poet, and saw in his work a vision of his native landscape. I realized that the modern poets whose work meant most to me, poets such as Tomas Transtromer and Antonio Machado and certain Welsh and Russian poets, as well as British and American poets, conveyed a particular sense of national identity. I don’t mean nationalism in a narrow sense, but a love of land and people, and a sense of what makes them unique. In Israel and on the European continent I had a strong sense of the blood-soaked soil and the past and present conflicts that had shaped people’s lives. My sense of history was deepened, as was my perception of the material constituents of place. The Dutch landscape, in part man-made from water and clay, had a profound effect upon me. Physical contrasts, such as that between mountainous Wales and Holland, where a molehill is an event, strongly affected my imagination. At the same time, I felt the difference between living in Wales and living in the Netherlands, the difference for me as an Englishman, and the different ways in which the Welsh and the Dutch felt about their countries. I am not a sociologist. What I am referring to is partly sensory – the feel of the land, qualities of light, sounds of language, images, such as the sight of a windmill in a field of blue clay, converted from the sea.

What I see looking back on the period of Openings, and the later period, spent in England and Wales, with some time in North America, is that I have been drawn out by the experience of different places, and at the same time taken deeper in. I have been interested in nature and history since I was a boy. Living on the continent and travelling more during the 1980s made me more conscious of my interest in poetry that both contains a sense of history and is alive to the natural world. Lyric poetry is by definition a personal art; but of course, that doesn’t mean it has to be primarily self-concerned. At a critical time, I discovered Martin Buber’s philosophy, from which I derived an enhanced sense of otherness. This helped me to think increasingly of poetry as a relational art, an art that places us in an animate universe, in which we exist with a multitude of diverse fellow beings. Life in the Netherlands and my subsequent experience helped to intensify and deepen what was an instinct from the beginning.

As to the uses of diaries and the prose poems I have quite recently `quarried’ from my journals: well, I started to keep a journal regularly, with the intention of recording the experience of living, from the days in Aberystwyth, around 1969. I think of the recent Under the Quarry Woods as an intensification of my journals edited for publication. The main thing to say, however, is that journal writing can lead to clarity and precision of expression, and an imagistic intensity that seeks to catch the living moment. I wouldn’t want to rationalize the poetic process further.

CE: Your account of some of your travels, and your own openness to multitudes – not only of different nations and traditions, but also of widely variant styles of writing poetry is the more  interesting for its evident sensitivity to real `differences’  between these cultural entities. And it takes me back to an important idea that you have already seemed to embrace for yourself: the idea, uneasy at first glance, of still being a `stranger’ – amongst other strangers like the poet Anne Cluysenaar – who has been able to arrive near enough to `home’, so as to be `grounded’ (such an important word for you, I think) within Wales. Can you supply any further last thoughts, perhaps to `complicate’, or partly explain, this really very interesting metaphor, of the `stranger’?

JH: Living in Wales, it’s been my great good fortune to come into contact with live currents of intellectual and spiritual influence that I would not have experienced with the same intensity in England. Having said which, I must add that I know that what I have found in Wales has encouraged the development of my own deepest instincts. I refer, for example, to love of country as a sense of living with a cloud of witnesses, such as we find in Waldo Williams, and of being a voice for those who could not speak for themselves.  Here, the idea of poetry as a voice of resistance, as defined by Emyr Humphreys, harmonises with my conviction that every place is a ‘centre’ demanding our care. The recent work of some younger poets in Wales, such as Steven Hitchins, shows the depth and detail of which such poetry is capable. I don’t know that I would have been able to ‘see’ even my own native places if I hadn’t sat in a caravan deep in Ceredigion ‘discovering’ David Jones, or been shocked by my encounter with Gwenallt’s poetry, albeit in English translation. It would be wrong for me to create an impression of isolation. The University of Glamorgan gifted me with friendships, and both there and elsewhere I have enjoyed the company of fellow poets. There is a lively interest in poetry in this area, where Mike Jenkins organises readings in Merthyr, with the same enthusiasm that I remember him participating in workshops in Aberystwyth many years ago.

The more generally I speak the more uneasy I become. As I have said, poetry for me is an exploratory art; it springs from uncertainty, from unknowing, from sensation and preconscious sources, and is an art that feelsfor meaning, which it may find in paradox and contradiction. As I espouse an imagistic modernism, I am aware that the more modernist the work, the more marginal it is. As ‘an Englishman in Wales’, I know that I am, in more than one way, a marginal figure. I won’t say it can’t be painful not to belong, not to feel completely at home where one lives. Nor is Wales a comfortable place for an Englishman who knows the history of its relationship with his original country. I will say it has been my luck to find myself, in Wales, in a position of ‘betweenness’, with access to imaginative possibilities I would not have found elsewhere.

 

Jeremy Hooker’s Selected Poems 1965-2018 and Art of Seeing: Essays on Poetry, Landscape Painting, and Photography, are available now.