Issue Five, Summer 2003
Dialogues with Poets

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In Dialogue with Kevin Hart

David McCooey

Deakin University

 

[Kevin Hart, born in London in 1954 before emigrating with family to Brisbane in 1966, graduated with honours from the Australian National University where he won a writing fellowship to Stanford University in 1977. On returning, he completed a subsequently published doctorate, The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, Theology and Philosophy, at the University of Melbourne in 1986 and has since held several academic posts, most recently at Monash University. He has published several volumes of verse, from The Departure (1978) to, most recently, Flame Tree: Selected Poems (2001) as well as criticisms and reviews of other poets such as Robert Gray, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, and, most notably, a study of A. D. Hope (1992). Also published are his translations of Giuseppe Ungaretti, The Buried Harbour (1990).

This exchange took place in Melbourne 1996 and first appeared under the title "Intersecting Worlds" in Meridian, vol. 15, no. 1 (May 1996), pp. 23-37.]

 

DM: What can you tell me of your childhood? Was the move to Australia difficult?

KH: I was born in 1954, in a small village in Essex, long since swallowed up, I suppose, by Greater London. A few years later my parents moved to the east end of London: my father had a job in the local gas works, and my mother worked as a dressmaker from home. I have only screen memories of that time, all trivial in themselves but charged with tremendous and opaque personal significance: cold winter light over industrial waste land, men in cloth caps lounging outside a tube station, the smell of darkness under a bed when looking for my sister's dolls. I can remember being in hospital for a spell, and I retain the impression of being a sickly child. My father was often on shift work, and so the household followed strict yet changing rhythms. These were syncopated with the demands of my mother's work; several evenings a week the house would be full of girls and women having fittings or picking up their dresses. I grew up in a house where the walls of the living room were covered with half-finished clothes. My mother liked doing weddings, and I have vivid memories of white satin and tulle, of women and girls being pinned up in front of the old full-length mirror or just sitting half-undressed on the settee, vaguely watching television maybe or flicking through the pile of German dressmaking magazines with their marvellous, intricate patterns. My father had to wait in the kitchen while all this went on, but, since I was just a child, I was allowed to stay in that magical space, with all its noises and scents, its female intimacy, and its warmth.

The daytime was rather different. A shy child and very frightened by my teachers, I made myself as invisible as I could be at school. I daydreamed endlessly and stayed near the bottom of the class. One day, the headmaster visited my parents after school and told my mother, to her horror, that I did not know my times table, could not tell the time, and probably much more as well. I made no progress and was quietly given to understand that I would always be below average, a slow boy. I failed the eleven-plus, and I can recall finding the examination intimidating and bewildering. My mother tried to interest me in becoming a butcher ("They get meat to take home, you know") or in helping her in the dressmaking business (I made covered buttons, cut out some of the simpler patterns). The second alternative was infinitely more attractive.

Then, when I was eleven, we heard there would be massive redundancies at the gas works, and so my parents applied to come to Australia as ‘ten-quid’ migrants. For me it was a wonderful adventure, though, when we arrived in Brisbane, I missed London terribly and in reaction I fashioned myself as very English for two or three years. I drew the Union Jack on everything I owned. The move was difficult, as you say, and while I am very happy here, and think of myself as Australian, being a child migrant also denied me any solid sense of having deep roots in a particular place.

DM: When did you begin to write?

KH: Like every other child, I scribbled stories and rhymes from early on, but when I was in second form [Grade Eight], there was a specific moment when poetry became real and urgent for me. By that time my performance at school had changed completely. That change was very sudden. It did not coincide with coming to Australia, far from it: I remained below average in primary school, was so afraid of water that I would cut myself before going to school in order to be excused swimming classes, but was generally pretty happy, all the same, mostly living in an inner world. Yet, in the first year of secondary school, I vaulted to the top of the class — the catalyst was an introductory class in algebra — and remained there. Anyway, to get back to your question, my second-form English teacher, John McGrath, read Shelley's "Ozymandias" to the class and made us memorise it for homework. I was ravished by the poem, went to town and bought a volume of Shelley which I would read and re-read with faint understanding and erotic pleasure. I spent the next few months filling notebook after notebook with imitation Shelley. I loved "Prometheus Unbound," "The Witch of Atlas," "Ode to the West Wind," and some lyrics that would now make me blanch. I read them to myself so often that I had long passages by heart. My teacher encouraged me in my writing, and — wisely — never offered criticisms, except once when, doubtless exacerbated by an inordinately long and high-flown Romantic drama, he commended the virtue of concision. Thereafter I came across other poets, but my first love was Shelley.

DM: I must say I'm surprised. The north has also had a major effect on your imagination, hasn't it?

KH: On the flight from London to Brisbane, I remember landing at Darwin in the early hours of the morning. I walked down the portable steps and felt the humidity rise to my chest. Then, when we arrived in Brisbane, I put my palm on a rail of the steps pushed up to the plane and felt that intense, burning heat. Everything seemed magnified and unruly in Brisbane, while, at the same time, I had the feeling that it had been forgotten, that I was growing up in a strange place not really on the map, a sprawling city smelling of beer and poinsettia with houses on stilts and ancient mosquito nets, a city that had gone to seed yet somehow managed to survive, idling, mostly in dreams. I love those dreams. Completely unused to the wild heat, I would seek out cool places, and the coolest place of all was the Queensland State Library where I would study on the weekend and linger over the poetry shelves.

DM: I can't imagine you as either a butcher or a dressmaker, but I'm wondering when you decided on an academic career. Did that occur at A.N.U. when you were doing your first degree?

KH: When I was at school I wanted to be a pastry chef, and I would spend hours and hours baking and decorating cakes. (Did you know that Robert Adamson once worked in a baker's shop in Sydney? We've had some animated talks about pleasures of royal icing and the trickiness of choux pastry. Things could have turned out very differently: perhaps we could have had rival cake shops in Sydney!) Then I wanted to be an architect, and then a mathematician. While I was at the A.N.U. I didn't think very much about what I would do once I graduated. As things turned out, I spent the first couple of years overseas — a few months in Europe, and then a year in California — and then drifted into school teaching when I came back home. I had thought about undertaking doctoral studies in the United States when I was there, but I started work on a dissertation years later, in 1983. I taught Philosophy part-time for the next couple of years, and then moved into teaching English full-time.

DM: There is a feeling of chance to all of this and I'm wondering to what extent the category 'Australian' is important to you as an 'Australian poet'?

KH: I tend to be wary of defining categories, national or otherwise, precisely because they are always massively overdetermined and, when used by themselves, tend to bypass or reduce other categories that are no less suggestive when reading poems. There is a fairly narrow range of categories used when talking about contemporary writers, especially poets, and they tend to follow well-established legal, national, regional, philosophical, political or religious codes. In each case, you can find definite historical reasons for choosing these categories rather than others, and most often you are sent back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the time when national canons were being formed in Europe. There is a world of difference between using the expression 'Australian poet' to indicate an aesthetic relativism or a cultural nationalism and using the same two words to acknowledge, with pleasure, a sense of community with other writers in the same country, both dead and alive. In thinking of myself as an 'Australian poet,' I would like to retain the second sense and distance myself from the first sense; but it would be naïve to think that this can be done easily and in all situations. When writing poems, I am far more interested in singularities that cut across categories, scratching them like a diamond, than in the categories themselves. Perhaps my poems generate effects that people recognise as distinctively Australian, I really don't know, but, if that happens, I suspect it would be a result of an idiom rather than of a given range of cultural, environmental or historical references: my poems tend to be more vertical than horizontal. But there are, after all, many ways of being Australian, both for a person and for a poem.

DM: Have you ever considered leaving Australia for good?

KH: Having spent nearly thirty years in Australia, I don't think there is any way I could leave 'Australia' for ever. How to define that shifting ensemble of events, places, relations and values? I can't say, at least not in an interview, but the country's various structures of feeling and thinking have long since become a part of me and, as I say, I affirm a sense of community with poets who have written and write here. I like writing poems in a country where David Campbell, John Shaw Neilson, Kenneth Slessor and Francis Webb have lived and written. (Do I need to add that arguing a bit with other writers is part and parcel of living in a community?)

DM: On to cultural matters then...were you serious when you wrote 'poets live in the shadow of New York'? Does the lack of a definite cultural centre in Australia have an effect?

KH: New York is an emblem for North America, and in particular its gorgeous north-eastern corridor. The most energetic, vibrant and enduring poetry written in English this century has been American. Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery: I think all poets who write in English have to come to terms with this set or another not unlike it. Of course, that does not in any sense exclude other poets with whom one has relations of admiration or debt, especially those who write in languages other than English. And yet, having said that, it must also be acknowledged that the translation of other poetries, especially from European languages, has been largely accomplished in the United States. And finally, for the last half-century or so, English literary criticism has increasingly become a North American affair; and that inevitably, if imperceptibly, affects what counts as 'poetry' for anyone who writes it, even if he or she keeps a distance from the university. Interpretation tends to affect what it interprets, and, in the postmodern world, changes can come thick and fast. To circle back to your question, I'd like to stress something positive: there are distinctive and original poems that have been and continue to be written in Australia, and for many readers, all over the place, the best Australian poetry is still to be read and enjoyed.

DM: You mention poetic community, and you have written on your friendship with A. D. Hope. Can you tell me of any other fruitful literary friendships?

KH: My most important 'literary friendships,' if these words make sense here, are those that offer no possibility of a reciprocity or even of a face-to-face meeting. They are relations with writers who are long since dead, but with whom I have an enduring fellow-feeling: not so much an ‘elective affinity’ as a sense of being mutually exposed to similar questions and a feeling of needing to respond to them. (I do not say answer them: poetry raises questions to a higher level; it does not supply answers.) I would distinguish community from communion: I have never felt a natural tie or obligation to other people because they are poets, writers, or artists, and I certainly do not believe that a country's artists achieve a fusion in articulating a 'national essence,' whatever that might be and however it might be achieved. There are several writers who are friends, one or two who are very close friends, but it is in the nature of friendship to be discreet. My comments on Alec Hope were by way of a public tribute.

DM: Well, then, do poets ever influence you in an obvious way? Do you ever read a poem and say to yourself, 'I think I'll try my hand at that'?

KH: No poet starts from scratch, and salient influences in writing are no different from experiences of falling in love. They happen only a few times in life, the early ones being decisive for the later ones. I have already spoken of Shelley and, so far as I can judge (and that may be hardly at all), I would add the modern poets I read passionately in my teens and twenties: Bonnefoy, Eluard, Machado, Montale, Rilke and Stevens. But how to weigh those names against those of the pre-modern and pre-Romantic writers encountered at university, that strange time when you are discovering the canon as well as contemporary poetry? When talking about reading like this, reading that has shaped my life, I would stress that certain works of philosophy have had at least as profound an effect, of a kind that I cannot distinguish from works of poetry. I am thinking above all of reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit and Heidegger's Being and Time. Then there are literary influences that are so large that you do not notice them: perhaps I belong to the last generation for whom the King James Bible forms one's habit of perception and sense of rhythm. And of course — as Harold Bloom has told us time and again — we are all prone to repress the most telling influences. Bloom's fundamental teaching, so often misunderstood, is that crucial influences are composites. That strikes me as true. I would also say this: the writing of poems is always caught up in the paradox of mimesis. Original poems come by imitating other poems — or what you take to be the other poem— up to a point and no further. I am not suggesting that writers compose with other poems literally before them, but that much-loved poems leave traces of ambivalent emotion in the memory, traces that mix with other similar traces, and these supply starting points for original work. It is not the contracting of a debt that is of interest in literature but rather how a writer lives with or attempts to discharge the debt.

Your second question turns on chance, local influences, when you come across a poem at just the right moment and something there freely offers itself to your imagination. That has happened to me a few times, but, as I say, the new poem takes off in a direction of its own. The possibility of mimesis is recognised, is taken up quickly and partly, and so, before you know it, the poem has projected its unique field of possibilities and is already crossing it.

DM: Regarding translation, a number of early critics of your work referred to some poems as resembling poetry in translation. Would you care to respond to that?

KH: I know that some people did not realise that several poems in The Lines of the Hand (1981) were in fact translations from Romance languages. In the 1970s, I did a wealth of translating, and learned a great amount about poetics in doing so. What I learned about poetry by far exceeded my competence with foreign languages: I'm not very gifted in that way. Now and then it seemed that I had made a poem my own in translating it (it seemed transfigured, not just translated), and so I included it along with 'my' poems. Doing that was also a way of indicating the space in which my poems were heading, although, of course, later books veered away from the locale I imagined and desired in my twenties. A few of my early poems showed traces of what I was doing in translation, and the critics you are referring to must have those poems in mind... There are literary works where a knowledge of other languages are crucial. But by and large, my poems work in the density and familiarity of English, although, to be sure, there are moments when one or more Romance languages could enrich a line or stanza.

DM: Vincent O'Sullivan believes that you learnt about metaphor from Spanish poetry. Do you agree?

KH: I learned a great deal from the modern Spanish poets I chanced upon in bookshops and libraries: Drummond de Andrade, Jiménez, Juarroz, Lorca, Machado, and probably many others besides. (I was lucky: for a year I lived in California.) I read some of these poets in my early-mid twenties and others only later, and I think that their examples gave me the confidence to become the poet I am. So much of what becomes fundamentally important to you as a writer turns on nothing more than chance. Growing older, you come across other poets whom you wish you had encountered earlier so that they could have influenced you (that is, marked out a world in which you could have learned to speak poetically), but by then the vanishing points are in place. One can, must, always learn; but learning occurs only within a horizon.

René Char says somewhere in one of his wise fragments that the poet must learn to develop his or her 'legitimate strangeness,' something that includes metaphor but is also more than metaphor. The writers I have named helped me to do that, and of course there were others.

DM: When you translate, do you ever try to find some equivalent to the poem's rhythm, or other technical aspects of the original, as Richard Wilbur does?

KH: Rhythm remains embedded in the maternal language, and it is only very rarely that I can successfully imitate the technique of a French or Italian poem. I have to immerse myself in the original poem, experience its rhythms and feel its lustres, and then — in the one movement, if at all possible — compose another poem in English, though one that answers to the original in every way it can. But the translated poem will always do less and more than the original.

Translating poems leads you from time to time to experience the fascination of edges and limits. You can sense some places where the borders of your language and tradition allow traffic to pass, others where the walls are very high, and still others where the land just crumbles into an abyss. The practice of translation has taught me a great deal about the poetics of presentation and representation, and first of all that no act of mimesis is an act of reproduction, purely and simply; it always involves a measure of supplementation.

DM: For someone who had mostly written free verse, your use of blank verse in Peniel (1991) is especially skilful. Did you work hard at using iambics, or do you feel that your lines had previously been loosely iambic anyway?

KH: I have been a student of prosody since my teens, and all poets who write in English inherit the pentameter, either as a living being or as a ghost. In the late ‘seventies when I was occasionally working in syllabics, I tried counting syllables as a way of rethinking the pentameter: '"Prague, 1968" (1981), for instance, alternates lines of nine and eleven syllables. In the early ‘eighties, I made an informal study of the poetics of the blank verse I loved. I re-read Wordsworth, Browning and Stevens very closely, but this time paying attention only to phrasing, distribution of accent and stress, and play of vowels. As it turned out, that was of invaluable help when I came to write Peniel. Over the years I had internalised something of the resilience, flexibility and gentleness of blank verse.

DM: There is a line of thinking which regards the writing of free verse as 'harder' than metred verse. What are your thoughts on this? How do you consider line-length when writing free verse?

KH: It's hard to improve on Eliot's dictum that no verse is free for the person who wants to do a good job. And didn't he also say somewhere that true vers libre is vers libéré? The French reminds us that English 'free verse' has two traditions, one arising from Whitman and another beginning from each of Rimbaud and Laforgue. I do not think there is a very sharp disjunction, purely at the level of technique, between blank verse and free verse in English. There are so many legitimate variations over the five feet of blank verse, for one thing, and the iambic tread is so pervasive in free verse, for another. Yet there can be no doubt that vers libre is far less difficult to manage effectively than the alexandrine after Corneille and Racine, even if one uses l'alexandrin ternaire. It is always going to be harder to write a long poem in English without the support of metre, and it is always going to be more demanding to write rhymed than blank verse, since English is relatively impoverished with respect to rhyme.

'Free verse'? I feel my way into it, although it usually turns out to have an anapestic or iambic ground against which it cuts a figure. Calculation comes later, in the many drafts each poem takes to become itself.

DM: I'd like to know if you have a characteristic way of working: do you write every day, for instance?

KH: Writing poetry is a matter of attention, of listening for a voice that comes from deep within. Few days go by without that practice of attention, though I certainly don't write poetry every day of the year. It sometimes happens that I work on a poem over a period of four, five or six weeks; and then I will work with it every day, sometimes for a few minutes and sometimes for several hours.

I keep a notebook and jot down words and phrases, titles, anything that strikes me as hinting at a poem. Sometimes there is a spark that goes from one of these entries to another, and then a poem has started. I find I can write only at home, in my study, in solitude.

DM: It's rumoured that you sent a copy of Peniel to Jacques Derrida. How did he respond?

KH: Derrida has always been a generous reader of whatever I have sent him. I remember that he drew attention to the motif of naming and namelessness that runs throughout the volume. He said some kind things, but it would be out of place to quote from a personal letter.

DM: Speaking of Derrida, isn't his emphasis on the fact that writing can be taken out of its original context a historiographical point? Isn't, then, the area of interest not that this happens (that meaning is not eternal and grounded by something exterior to it), but how it happens, the processes of interpretation? And if that's so, do you think the former point has been over-emphasized?

KH: Especially in his early writings, Derrida attends very closely to a deep western desire to construe meaning or being by way of presence. And, as is well known by now, he shows with admirable patience and resourcefulness that we never encounter presence as such but only metaphysical concepts, some of which are extremely powerful, that are folded into other textual chains which, of course, change the sense and value of those concepts. It follows that these concepts are not self-identical and therefore not simply metaphysical. Deconstruction reveals the history of our concepts, and along the way it shows that the borders between philosophical and everyday ideas are divided and equivocal. It opens new ways of rethinking and recombining those concepts, including the concepts that make up deconstruction. In that sense, it is a discourse both on and of the possibility and impossibility of originality.

DM: Well, let's turn this around to your poetry. Doesn't there remain in your poetry a tension regarding an apprehension of 'the thing itself' and the knowledge that it is determined by various categories (for instance, in "Firm Views" (1991))? Is that an emotional tension rather than an intellectual one?

KH: "Firm Views" belongs to the sub-genre of the dialogue poem as written by Sidney, Marvell and Yeats; it stages the very tension you raise, which I would say is both emotional and intellectual, the two always being intertwined in the most important things. The poem does not attempt to resolve the tension, although the more sceptical of the two speakers has the last word. Overall, I think my poems are not so much about the division between appearance and reality as about the glorious appearings of things, their adventures in worldly presence. It goes without saying that 'presence' here does not refer to a hardened metaphysical essence. In the clarifying language of Heidegger, it is to do with Anwesen (the coming-into-presence of Being) rather than Anwesenheit (a state of permanent presentness--what Plato called eidos and Aristotle ousia) or Vorhandenheit (an objectifying notion of presence, meaning that something is present to hand). Heidegger talks about the ontological nature of poetry, that Being is spoken in the major works of Hölderlin, Rilke and Trakl. Perhaps: though I doubt that Being speaks only through German writers! And, like many others, I have reservations about the all-encompassing, neutralising character of Heideggerian Being. Besides, it is just as important to stress that poetry goes in quest of the pre-ontological: the everyday, the taken-for-granted, the barely noticed.

DM: Isn't your interest in one's 'secret name' an interest in an 'essential' aspect of one's self which transcends historical categories, something which if pronounceable would 'define' you?

KH: The notion of a 'secret name' has many sources — I've stumbled across it in magic and the Kabbalah — but let's take our cue from Derrida since he has already come up. There are two ways of understanding him on this point: that no presence can present itself to consciousness and that there is no presence. It seems to me that, while Derrida's commentators slide between these two claims, Derrida himself has established the first but not the second. My view is that we can learn about the self at certain levels, especially at those levels where selfhood is constructed by family and society: that is what happens in psychoanalysis. But the deep self cannot directly offer itself to consciousness. Kant said a great deal to the point on this topic, but Shelley has said it more memorably: "The deep truth is imageless." The deep self abides in solitude, waiting for God. Whether there is a unique self — call it a ‘soul,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘pneuma,’ or whatever — is a question of religious faith, not philosophical argument. David Hume was perfectly right, within the limits of his investigation, to say that he could find no continuing self-identity by introspection. But his line, that questions of self-identity are to do with grammatical rather than philosophical difficulties, is only a partial answer: at heart they are theological difficulties.

DM: I'd like to consider some religious themes at this point; perhaps we might start autobiographically...

KH: My father is a man of strong, discreet, religious feelings and my mother saw only the shell of Christianity--the Church's dogmas about heaven and hell ("We'll find out when we die anyway"), its moral teachings ("Why should we listen to priests, what do they know about anything?"). So, I was brought up a nominal Anglican. As a child, the only times I saw a church was when my mother took me to see a wedding, and then we almost always waited outside for the bride to appear. From an early age, though, I had strong religious yearnings; and these flared up during adolescence. I became associated with a Baptist sect; later, when I was living in California, I attended Episcopalian services; but when I returned to Australia I decided to convert to Catholicism. I was received into the Church in 1980. There were many reasons for that decision, but they all coalesced in a feeling of being at home in the Catholic world. It felt right, emotionally and intellectually, and it still does, even though the conservative wings of the Church drive me crazy sometimes.

DM: Some of your best poems are both religious and very simple. The Gift (1981), for instance (one of my favourites), seems to 'do' very little (until perhaps the last line), yet it resonates with the force of a parable and the accumulated connotations of ‘gift.’ Could you comment on this?

KH: Poems open themselves to the unknown by attending to and caring for the known. We know or think we know about exchanges and gifts, but what fascinated me while writing the lyric was the notion of a gift coming from who knows where that seemed to require no return at all. You could call it Grace. As you say, though, the final line complicates matters considerably. I like your suggestion that it is a parable. I adore the parables in Borges, Kafka and the New Testament.

DM: You speak often of the experience of being 'called' to a text. Could you name some of the texts which have had this effect on you?

KH: Yes, this came up a little earlier, didn't it? One day an aphorism, essay, poem, story, or whatever crosses your path, completely out of the blue, and it speaks to you with such uncanny power that it changes your life, taking you deeper into yourself or forcing you to take some action in the world about you. You feel as though the meeting were inevitable and unique, that a crucial part of yourself has been dormant until now: the categories of chance and fate suddenly become indistinguishable. That's what I have in mind when speaking of being called by a text. It is different experience from a book having an impact on you when you encounter it at school or university or when you finally get around to reading it: all that is a matter of culture. I have felt being called, as though by my secret name, by all kinds of books over the years: Charles Simic and Mark Strand's Another Republic, Maurice Blanchot's L'Arrêt de mort, Yves Bonnefoy's Du mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve and Meister Eckhart's Sermons and Treatises. There are undoubtedly others.

DM: The religious connotation is deliberate, isn't it? Which parts of the Bible are you called by?

KH: This late in literary and religious history it can be rare to be called by the Bible in the sense I have given to the word. And yet it happens, if only because the Bible is so frequently taken as a cultural artefact, a museum piece, and so seldom read with any attention. Let me see. Well, in the Hebrew Bible: most of the stories in Genesis; the whole of Job, the most sublime story in ancient literature, I'd say; Ecclesiastes; a handful of the psalms. And in the New Testament: long passages of the gospels, including all the parables.

DM: Apart from The Departure (1975) most of your work survives into the New and Selected Poems (1995). Can you tell me something about the putting together of that book? Are you pleased with the new poems?

KH: And apart from The Buried Harbour (1990), my versions of Giuseppe Ungaretti, but that book is a little different...

So, yes, the New and Selected Poems contain most of what I have written and everything to date of my own poems that I wish to preserve. All up, it took about two and a half years to put the collection together: I pondered each poem, rewrote or retouched where that was needed, and slowly established a typescript. I showed this text to a few friends and then made some further changes. Then I put it away for several months before casting a final eye over the whole.

All the time I was adding new poems, perhaps the book supplied some of the energy for that, and it seems to me that some of the new lyrics are among my best. But aren't we always most pleased with what is most recent? What has pleased me most is being able to make some small changes to some early lyrics which make them the poems they should have been but could not be until now.

DM: Those revisions were usually quite minor, weren't they? But why did you drop the titles of your short poems? The haiku Memory (1981) is really quite a different poem without the title, don't you think?

KH: After a poem has been in print for a few years, any change to it is significant, even the addition or removal of a comma. One or two poems I rewrote extensively; with several I made small additions or deletions; and with most I changed the punctuation a little. I suppose that haiku you mention has changed, but the title seemed too heavy for such a fleck of a poem.

DM: You like relatively unified collections. The New and Selected Poems (1995) obviously cannot be like that. Was that burdensome or liberating?

KH: It was liberating to take stock of what I have written and to offer only what I thought had already showed a resistance to time. Doesn't Borges say somewhere that everything you write slowly traces out your true face? I can't make out my face, but I wanted to present it as clearly as I could.

DM: To end, I'd like to discuss a few of your new poems. Does Nights (1995) represent a new dramatic shift in your work or has it always been there?

KH: I'm dubious about talk of shifts, for a couple of reasons. In the first place, I feel drawn to just one poem, an impossible lyric that I keep trying to write. And in the second place, if you'll let me run with your question a little, I think that talk about experimental writing tends to mistake its object. Experimental writing is not a matter of breaking form, but of regarding poetry as experience: a groundless exposure to the unknown, perhaps also the unknowable. I sense that, unless I allow a part of me to be completely open to whatever may offer itself in writing, the impossible poem that beckons me will simply fade. If "Nights" represents anything, it is an interest in writing some longer poems; but I prefer not to talk about what I will try to write in case it drains energy from the act of writing itself.

DM: Certainly. A major impulse in your work in the last few years has been toward the idea of acceptance; this is especially noticeable in September Rain (1993). Is this a traditional Christian aspect of your work do you think?

KH: Can I answer by quoting from one of Eckhart's homilies? "If anyone were to ask life over a thousand years, 'Why are you alive?' the only reply could be: 'I live so that I may live'. This happens because life lives from its own foundation and rises out of itself."

DM: In The Carpenter (1995), there is a kind of condensed Mystery Play, isn't there, where the grandfather as both soldier and carpenter is both crucified and crucifier? Would you say you characteristically see the world in such a typological way?

KH: I'm not aware of seeing the world in any particular way. I suppose my poems suggest a way or ways, but there is something in those same poems that forbids me to recognise what it is. For the writer, poems are not windows onto the world, they are worlds that intersect with the world.

 

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