The Between the Lines series of interviews with poets has been around for a long time, and in general the books are worth a look; I think of them now because some of the poets interviewed have recently passed away. (These books may be out of print; a few, however, were recently combined in a single volume, Seven American Poets in Conversation: John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Charles Simic, W.D. Snodgrass, Richard Wilbur.)
The BTL editors approvingly quote Flaubert’s Parrot’s Geoffrey Braithwaite: ‘if you love a writer, if you depend upon the drip-feed of his intelligence, if you want to pursue him and find him,’ then ‘it’s impossible to know too much.’ The late Michael Hamburger, subject, or perhaps I should say object, of a BTL volume, probably would have disagreed; he once wrote in PN Review that for a poet to spend most of his time doing readings of his poems, or talking about them in interviews, ‘calls for a mode of attention which, for me, makes the writing of a poem impossible.’ There is, if you look at it this way, a conflict of interest between poet and interviewer. Nevertheless, Hamburger answered initial questions by telephone, and those that required detailed answers were typed up and answered in writing. The resulting book consists of what questioner Peter Dale calls ‘part interview, part printerview.’ Since Hamburger chronicles in it his ‘traumatic translation from one country, one language, to another,’ perhaps this is yet another survivable translation. He agrees to undertake being interviewed ‘for the benefit of any potential undertaker or exhumer’ of his poetic corpus - sadly apt word choices, in retrospect. Insisting that the essence of his experience has gone into his poems, Hamburger generally avoids discussions of what the interviewer calls his ‘vast experience,’ explaining that these would be ‘mere elaborations’ of what he has already ‘written and implied.’ (Consistent with this view, Hamburger, speaking of Pound and Eliot, says that ‘good poetry is always more and other than the opinions that went into it or can be read out of it.’) He does let slip a few anecdotes about Celan, Enzensberger, and Graves (there’s even a funny story about Roethke!), as well as Lucien Freud and R.B. Kitaj. But he says of such recollections that ‘They are past history – for me. I was lucky enough to survive all my battles with publishers, editors and reviewers, and now want nothing but the peace I need for my last poems.’
This sounds autumnal, as does Hamburger’s conclusion that ‘the best thing about old age and illness that could have killed one but didn’t is that it can bring one a little nearer to the always unattainable truth, by detracting from what one thought one knew, and so stripping one of vanity and ambition.’ Yet we learn that Christopher Middleton used to call Hamburger ‘Gloomburger' – ‘I can always be relied upon to moan about something’ – and far from constituting a swan song, the volume documents the poet’s lively, fighting spirit. In place of the anecdotal we are treated to salutary, memorable, and even revealing remarks: ‘What has gone out of critical debate is the notion of progress in the arts.’ ‘Haste, divisive pressures and overwork began in my adolescence and never abated before old age.’ ‘Reputations are part of the brand advertising that goes with our totalitarianism of commerce and finance.’ ‘A translation one has done behaves just like a poem of one’s own.’
The late and now forever-notoriously 'confessional' American poet, W.D. Snodgrass, seems to have been tape recorded rather than printerviewed for his volume. The book reads like the transcript of a casual dialogue in which Hoy does much of the talking; Hoy’s questions for Snodgrass are less well researched and provocative than those Dale put to Hamburger. At any rate, readers looking for stories about Snodgrass’s colleagues Lowell, Jarrell, and Berryman will find them: Jarrell’s telling Snodgrass, ‘you’re writing some of the very best second-rate Lowell in the whole country,’ or Empson’s wife in response to Snodgrass’s saying at a party how much he’d wanted to meet the then-elderly Empson (‘You may have been in time’), or Snodgrass’s appearance on a panel with Amiri Baraka, who responded to the moderator’s asking what was so bad about American poetry by pointing to Snodgrass and saying, ‘He is.’
In yet another volume, Peter Dale and Ian Hamilton interview and printerview Anthony Thwaite, and this time the questioners and interviewee exchange quips and engage in shoptalk. One feels like an eavesdropper, but Thwaite’s remarks are fascinating. He discusses the ‘limiting judgements’ he’s had to make as editor and teacher about Hughes when he’s been too boringly shamanistic, Hill when he’s too densely cryptic, Harrison when he’s pushed the ‘class’ thing too hard, Heaney when he’s relied too much on the charmingly rural. He discusses ‘the Larkin business’ (‘I strongly feel that we did the right thing’), and has things to say about Geoffrey Hill (Thwaite describes how Hill, very early on, was ‘on to Lowell’), and, of course, his own work. Correlating his interest in archaeology with his work as a poet, he indicates a ‘strong sense of the past, and the way in which the past feeds itself into the present.’ I suppose this is why he can also be reticent. When asked if it is true that he once rang up Douglas Dunn and said ‘This is the London Literary Establishment’ -- and that Dunn believed him -- Thwaite understandably replies: ‘I don’t really want to get drawn into that, if you don’t mind.’ He's obviously aware of the limitations of the interview. Elsewhere, he talks about ‘the gaps, the exaggerations, the errors of memory, the lies, even when one’s trying to tell the truth. Just like this interview, in fact…’
Of the books I've seen, the most absorbing is the one devoted to Anthony Hecht (who died in 2004). Hecht took full advantage of the printerview format, crafting concise and valuable near-essays in response to a list of nearly one hundred questions posed by Philip Hoy, ‘some of them quite long and involved.’ Why Hecht was submitted to more detailed questioning than the others isn’t clear, but it is felicitous, and Hecht’s responses (the published text is a fourth draft of them) comprise a vividly composed autobiography that nicely outlines Hecht’s previously articulated views on matters of poetry. Paying back the interviewer in a sense, he simply quotes himself whenever there are questions he’s answered in the past, for instance: what Ransom’s classes were like, or how Ransom published Hecht’s first poem in The Kenyon Review by mistake (Ransom had written ‘Hecht’ for ‘Brecht’ in a list of future contributors). Hecht responds at length to a question about Auden’s complaint that there is an ‘excess of detail’ in Hecht’s work, which culminates in a discussion of the difficulty of counting large numbers of swans, as Yeats does in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole.’ Hecht’s mind was always engaged in points of detail; but he was also capable of witty, soulful brevity; when Hoy quotes Pascal’s ‘Few men speak humbly of humility, chastely of chastity, sceptically of scepticism,’ Hecht replies, ‘How very sound; and how chastening.’ He is constantly illuminating - ‘Extravagance is a legitimate feature of poetry,’ ‘names in Eliot count for a lot,’ and so on. Impossible to summarise, this volume is an adjunct to Hecht’s fascinating On the Laws of the Poetic Art. Yet Hecht, like Hamburger, declined the possible gratifications of autobiography. Even in his poetry, Hecht poignantly confessed to his questioner, ‘I did not trust my own feelings enough to risk ... a cri du coeur, and I sought protection in dramatic structures and irony.’ As for his reflections on his life as a poet, he noted that memory plays tricks, that his life was ‘comparatively uneventful,’ and that ‘there are a number of things I simply don’t want to say, not least because they would cause pain to others.’ When's the last time you heard about a British or American poet who didn't want to cause anybody pain? John Ashbery, maybe, who's interviewed in the series by Mark Ford; I love Ashbery, yet this volume didn't do much for me. Stick with his selected prose and terrific Norton lectures. He's been interviewed all over the place - try this one, instead.
The BTL editors endorse the fictitious Braithwaite’s obsessive pursuit of the writer, but Barnes’s novel is the story of just how Quixotic that search really is. Between the lines, yes; but beyond the book, well... maybe there's only so much to know.