LIDIA VIANU -- ANNE STEVENSON
I’m a fully qualified, radical Desperado
Interview with ANNE STEVENSON (born 3 January 1933), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: Your poetry relies on the music of emotion more than on the music of words. You write about small gestures and apparently insignificant memories. The result is an unforgettable mood, such as To My Daughter in a Red Coat, who comes ‘so fast, so fast’ and violates’ the past’. The rhyme is and is not there. It can be analysed or ignored, as long as the mood works its magic. Are you a hardworking poet or one who works more on her sensibility than her words? Or both?
ANNE STEVENSON: I work very hard on all my poems, but most of the work consists of trying not to sound as if I had worked. I try to make them sound as natural as possible, but within a quite strict form, which to my ears has a lot to do with musical rhythm and sound.
LV. There is a sadness in your poems that never goes away and which gives them a meditative, hazy air. Is poetry a refuge from pain or a cure from it? Is writing a way of life, where painful emotions are propitiated?
AS. My earlier poems were sadder than my poems are today, perhaps because I wrote them in confusion or when I was unhappy. But I am not a melancholy person, quite the contrary, no one enjoys laughing more than I do. I write, or used to write, to explain to myself situations I couldn’t otherwise solve or understand. Meditation comes very naturally to me.
LV. Blake seems to be an influence with you. Who are your literary models? Who are your literary friends?
AS. Blake has always been a favorite, the lyrics, not so much the prophetic books, but I suppose Yeats influenced me more as a young poet, and the American, Robert Frost. Elizabeth Bishop I call my mentor – I used to correspond with her and have written two books on her work. I have also learned a great deal from WH Auden and Louis MacNiece.
LV. One poem was written ‘for Alasdair Gray.’ Do you like his work? Is he a personal friend or a friend of the mind? Your imagination, like his, lie under Blake’s sign. Why this dedication?
AS. I knew Alasdair Gray well when I lived in Glasgow in the ‘Seventies – but his imagination is far more fanciful than mine. I wrote my poem for him after I had seen an exhibition of his paintings in Glasgow. The poem is also about living in Glasgow.
LV. Reading your poems one does not learn very much about your concrete life: where you were born, what you studied, your family, your friends. Your joys and sorrows clearly come through, though, in a vague veil of words. You do not imagine stories for you poems, like Matthew Sweeney, for instance. Could you reveal for the readers of this interview the story of your life? Who is Anne Stevenson, born 3 January 1933?
AS. I don’t really approve of ‘confessional’ poetry, but I have no objections to telling you a little about myself in prose. I was born in Cambridge, England, when my father, the American philosopher, Charles Leslie Stevenson, was studying there with Wittgenstein and G.E. Moore. He was a good friend and colleague of Willard Orman Van Quine at Harvard, and he taught at Yale too, before becoming a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is most famous for his book called Ethics and Language. I grew up, the eldest of three sisters, in Ann Arbor and studied music, piano and cello, at school and at the university (I was a cellist until my deafness overcame me, but I play the piano every day, still.) I married a young Englishman in Cambridge in 1955 and have lived in Britain every since. My marriage and divorce rate is pretty high, but my second husband – still a friend – was the Sinologist Mark Elvin whom I met at Harvard at the end of the nineteen-seventies. My present (4th) husband is Peter Lucas, son of a Cambridge classics don and nephew of the critic F.L. Lucas. Peter retired from the legal department of the Civil Service when we married in London in 1987. He is now chiefly writing on Charles Darwin. We are both confirmed Darwinians – so you see, with my deep scepticism I am not at all like Blake! I have three children, a daughter Caroline by my first husband, and two sons by Mark Elvin. All now are over 35, grown up with children of their own. Peter Lucas and I live in Durham but spend a great deal of time in North Wales, where we have a cottage in the mountains, and in Vermont, USA, with my sister – who is a children’s writer married to a poet. So you see, my milieu has been literary and intellectual most of my life, though I never wanted to be an academic myself.
LV. You have written a biography of Sylvia Plath. Why did you choose her? Do you feel related to her poetry? You are so much gentler and quieter. Not that exhibitionistic at all. Was she a friend?
AS. Sylvia Plath was just a month and a half older than I, and when she committed suicide I was only 30 – and very shocked and sorry. I never knew her personally. I did know Ted Hughes and I partly wrote the book to explain to myself and others the complexities of a marriage that was for six years wonderfully productive of poetry and then ended in tragedy. Her story is one of the major tragedies of the 20th century. Had she lived, she might have outgrown her exhibitionism and craving for fame and success. Her poetry is extremely powerful, but studying it, I knew I didn’t and couldn’t move in that direction.
LV. Your poetry is not one of fear. If anything, it has an energy of the soul which gives courage to your reader. I could not find obsessions in your poems, hard as I tried. You record things casually, with an intensity which is carefully hidden from the first glance at the poem. What is your opinion of ‘much ado about nothing’ in poetry? Of the young poets who use angry, shameless words and shout their inability to feel? Does it happen today? A lot? Not at all? Are they poets? Can they be good at poetry in their own way?
AS. I don’t like egotism, exhibitionism, or outright stupid showing off. I suspect I have a classical, rather than a romantic temperament. I greatly respect order and form in art – in all the arts. I remain loyal to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert in music and to
Shakespeare and Jane Austen in literature. In my view, a great deal of what is being written today is not poetry, but on the other hand, I have a wide taste in contemporary literature. I especially admire Primo Levi and Wanda Szymborska, both of whom I read in translation. I love their intelligence and wit.
LV. After the Fall is a remarkable love poem. Here it goes:
I’ve not had a moment’s love
since I was expelled.
Let me in.
I’ve not had a moment’s rest
since I was a rib.
Put me back.
You are sharp and soft at the same time. The idea is coated in feeling. Yet this is obviously a poem which focusses on the mind. When you write, does the idea come first, or do you start from what you feel?
AS. After the Fall was written mainly as a joke. It wasn’t a personal love poem at all, I was just feeling fed up with housekeeping and children. Yes, I do often write poems from the mind, but I hope I don’t ignore feelings and emotions. A poem might be defined as thinking about feelings... about human feelings and frailties.
LV. Death and maternity are two major themes in your lines. Do you start from your real life when you write a poem, from something that actually happened to you that day or a while ago? Or do you prefer imagination to memory? Contemporary novels rely upon a kind of mnemotechnical skill, they use a word and expect the reader to remember it whenever it is used in a new, different context. You do that in poetry. Your words are fragile memories of other poems, other feelings. Are you aware of the pressure you put upon language, in your quiet, shy way?
AS. Well, I’m not really quiet or shy. Ask any of my friends! But I always ground my poetry in life itself. Poetry is an art of language, though, so I am always aware of every word’s meaning, or multiple meanings. I play with language a great deal in my poems, and I enjoy that. I try to condense language, that is, I try to express complicated but I hope real emotions as simply as possible. But that doesn’t mean the poems are simple, just that they are as truthful as I can make them. Each word bears its weight, so you have to read my poems quite slowly.
LV. Making Poetry begins thus:
You have to inhabit poetry
if you want to make it.
You do not make a poem, indeed – you actually inhabit it. Then comes the making. Is this making of the poem difficult? Do you work a lot for a poem? Is it more important to chisel or to catch quickly the right hue?
AS. Yes, I do make poetry after inhabiting an idea for a while. Poets have always been Makars, in the Scottish language, poietes in Greek.
LV. You have written sixteen volumes of poetry and biographies of Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop. You are also a literary critic. As a literary critic and a poet at the same time, what kind of literary criticism do you favour? These days, if a book of criticism does not have footnotes and does not converse with other critics before stating anything the author dares think on his own, it is worthless. If the critic does not use a jargon of terms invented and repeated as labels by many others, his language is – blasphemy – literature, not criticism. Shouldn’t criticism be literature first and foremost? Is it science? Is readability unimportant as far as a critical text is concerned?
AS. I agree with you, there is far too much literary criticism of the wrong kind. That is why I never could have survived as an academic. Poets should ignore most criticism and get on with making poetry. I dislike literary jargon and never use it. Criticism has only one function and that is to help readers read and understand literature. It is not a science, it is an aid to art.
LV. I like to call contemporary writers Desperadoes because they make their own law and most often break all laws. Would you think this applies to your poems? Or do you see yourself as a submissive follower of tradition?
AS. No, no, never a submissive anything! I’m a fully qualified, radical Desperado. I have always made my own rules, in poetry as in life – though I have tried of late to cooperate more with my family. I do, however, believe that without order or pattern poetry is useless.
I like rhyme because it is memorable, I like form because having to work to a pattern gives me original ideas. I often make up a stanza form and then follow it in subsequent stanzas. But I can write perfect Shakespearian sonnets, too. I think a poet, like a painter, should be a craftsperson. I don’t like poetry that just slaps violent words on a canvas, as it were. I think we are living in terrible times for all the arts. We have a really decadent, sloppy, spoiled civilization here in the West, full of gimmicks and tricks and bad taste, very short on the kind of discipline and self-discipline a good poet needs. When everything is for ‘fun’ nothing is for the good. I am now seventy, rather glad, really, that I won’t live to see the horrors to come in the 21st century. But then, life has always been full of horror, hasn’t it? The point is not to indulge in pseudo-made-up horrors but to face the real ones, stoically. Sylvia Plath admired Plato. I am a devotee of Heraclitus. All is flux.
7 October 2003