Richard Greene teaches Creative Writing and British Literature at the University of Toronto. He edited the acclaimed Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, and has published three collections of poetry, most recently Boxing the Compass, which won the Governer General’s Award for poetry.
Carmelo Militano interviewed Richard Greene in January, 2011.
Let me begin by saying how much I admired and enjoyed the long narrative poems in this collection: ‘The White Fleet,’ ‘Boxing the Compass’ and especially ‘Over the Border’ which reads like a travelogue, are clear-eyed and very much like prose, in terms of technique. Do you see a difference between poetry and prose? Or are you like Gary Geddes who quipped in a workshop I once attended that the longer he has been working as poet the less he sees a divide between poetry and prose.
It is hard to string fence-wire between the two. I was first inspired by poetical novelists –especially Thomas Wolfe, some of whose passages are in iambics. I can only give a working definition of poetry — a particularly concentrated use of the rhetorical devices found in other forms of writing. In prose, the ability to manage sound and metaphor are essential — but in poetry the stakes are higher still. I would think that my frequent use of strict forms would set me apart from a prose writer — if you notice, “Over the Boarder” uses a ten syllable line and rhymes or half rhymes abcb. I have worked hard to give the impression of prose, while doing something mostly in the tradition of “verse.”
Your poems are not experimental; For example, there are no fragments, dislocation of voice and place, no sudden shifts in voice, or a bleeding of the real into the surreal and vice-versa. Instead, the poems in this collection are organic and the language and control steady (if I can use that term) and you seek it seems to me to be a witness to the past or representational of your experience. Is there a social purpose as well as personal reasons for this style? In other words, do you have conscious reasons for your writing style or is something that evolved?
Let me be provocative: I don’t regard the techniques you describe as being in a strict sense experimental. They have been around for almost a hundred years in English poetry, and need always to be made new, as Pound would say. Indeed the term experimental is somewhat self-congratulatory, and I think it should be used cautiously. The problem is that avant-gardism is nowadays often unconsciously nostalgic. However, I venerate some surrealist poets — among the living, A. F. Moritz. I have just published a 500-page biography of Edith Sitwell, a British poet influenced by surrealism. Some of my own poems do show traces of surrealism: “Window,” “Oil-Barrel,” and “Utopia” are very lightly surrealistic. However, I write the poems I am good at, and I am very good these days at describing place and action. I am also very good at single memorable phrases. When I work in strict forms, I find a concentration, a density of language and thought, that excites me as a writer. The sonnets in Boxing the Compass, “ (especially, say, “St. Ignace” 2, and 2 and 9 of the title sequence), were more layered and focused simply because they are sonnets. But even in free-verse, I tend not to rely much on fragmentation, odd line-breaks, and so on, because I think the cri-de-coeur of the broken line is, well, adolescent. Not always — Eliot (remember that The Waste Land was published 89 years ago!) manages fragmentation splendidly. However, I write the poems I am able to write. It is entirely possible that in a few years I will find some more use for these techniques than I presently do. They are in the tool-box. We will see. I should say that in a sense no one will share, I find something near to Surrealism in Cavafy, and he lies behind my poem on ancient martyrs.
A social sense driving my sense of technique? I care about people and their stories — this leads me to narrative. I use snatches of conversation — counterpointed often by regularity of form, following something of Frost’s method. I get tired of political scolding that goes on in lots of poems. Derek Mahon has sacrificed a good deal in becoming more editorial and soap boxy as he gets older. I have written about the United States at length but try not to close off the discussion — to leave an openness for dissent in the poem. More importantly, the poem I am looking for all the time is visionary, not social: “The Living”, has some of that. One day I would like to have the technical means of describing a mystical experience I had at the age of 16. Modernist and post modernist poetics give little room for that. We censor out anything that is “unearned” — for me the interesting disruptions of the day to day narratives of life are the ones modern poetry wants least to deal with. I am not finally interested in fragmentation — I am interested in how one sense of connection dissolves into a better one. The state of dissolution is necessary but transitional. Some of my poems are in strict forms, some in orderly free verse, but what really gets me is what I refer to in “The White Fleet” as the “bounty beyond our best intentions.” This puts me on the wrong side of most recent literary theory, but I am okay with that. Also, there is a tendency in poetry workshops, especially in Canada, to prefer littleness, to cut and cut to a kind of minimalism, because that works in a group dynamic. A poetry of reach has to withstand the kind observations of its first readers.
Many of your poems allude or speak directly to your faith and your spiritual search and involvement; even your humor as in “Church Music Considered’ your faith is evident behind the poem. What is the relationship between your faith and your poetic aesthetic? Would you call yourself a Catholic writer (I am guessing you are) and what does that mean if you do ?
Faith is extremely important to me. But the problem I was touching on in my last answer is that a really great religious poet in our time would have to be above all a technical genius. We go to school to other poets, and there are interior experiences that we choose not to talk about. We dread the word “unearned” — but as I have told Al Moritz, the resolutely earthbound quality of modernist poetry can become a system of censorship. Here are all these Canadian poets — I’d say nearly half — entertaining religious beliefs that they fear to talk about in poetry. It is like earlier centuries fearing to talk about sex in poetry. Even so, technique is learned from other poets, and if the religious themes are in disrepute, it is very hard to develop, in relative solitude, a technique for addressing them. It is something I think about a fair bit.
In the acknowledgements you write about some of the poems in this collection go back twenty years. How do you measure your development as a poet? Has your poetry changed over the years and if so how?
I don’t think the essence of my poetry has changed at all over many years. I began with a knack for rendering interior experiences — intense if not typical states of loneliness and yearning — and have added to that an ability to render place, event, and dialogue. They may seem to be at odds, but it is merely an addition of skills. But bear in mind that I am an extremely un-prolific poet. I can’t write poetry most of the time, so when a subject presents itself, I seize it. Mary Dalton once said to me, “You write the poems you need.” The poems I write often articulate need, but should not be taken as representing the whole of my life. The Globe and Mail described my poems as “Dark and Moody” — this took me by surprise, for I am actually a lighthearted person most of the time. I am one of the big hopers, yet my poetry deals rather scorchingly with sentiment and soft feeling — but the truth is I live by these feelings and my poems test them with irony. It is a search for footings.
I am wondering who are the poets who influenced your aesthetic and informed your development as a poet? Who are the poets you admire?
The twentieth century poet who has most influenced me is almost unknown in this country — Peter Levi was a very big deal in British poetry until his death a few years ago. He managed to get a spiritual sense into poetry, that was haunting, musical, and superbly eccentric. Even though I dodge the term “experimental,” you will be amused to note that Peter Levi is described by one critic as a landscape surrealist. So perhaps, there is a surrealist in me looking for a way of breaking out. Probably not. Others? Edith Sitwell, of course, another polarizing figure. I do not venerate Seamus Heaney as a great genius, but I am told that I become more and more like him. So it may be that I have an admiration there deeper than I will admit. Among Canadian poets, the little known Philip Gardner of Ottawa had and has a great effect on me. I honour the work of Kildare Dobbs and John Reibetanz. In my taste for epigrams, I am influenced by Yeats. There are other oddly sorted influences. George Eliott Clarke said in a review that I was influenced by John Masefield, a poet we both admire and think under-rated. In countless ways, I am influenced by Hopkins, Hardy, and Housman. Robert Lowell is a constant presence, especially “For the Union Dead.” It is funny to have so many influences and such strong opinions and to have written so few poems!