Another in my occasional series of conversations. I am talking with George Szirtes on the back of the publication of The Burning of The Books.
I first met George when he came to Lancaster to take part in an evening with me on European translations. We were launching the bilingual Flax pamphlet "No one else at home". I found him charming, generous and wickedly expansive. I hope you find something similar in his answers below.
Sarah: The first poem of the book, Chet Baker, speaks of the ground being “littered with broken phrases”, which preempts the fragmentary sense of your poetic sequences. In some of these sequences, you write explicitly about photographs and film. How much did music play a part in the writing of the poems?
George Szirtes: Music plays relatively little part in the making of the poems. I very much enjoy music but have rarely written about or out of it. Maybe it just seems somehow self-complete – ‘all art continually aspires to the condition of music’ is that Walter Pater? Chet Baker appealed to me as pathos, as something so frail it is hardly there, but when it breaks into pieces (Baker was thrown from one of the upper windows of a hotel by some drug dealer as far as I remember) it somehow survives all the more clearly.
Sarah: I was particularly caught by the sequences in the book. The Burning of the Books being especially revelatory and horrific in a surreal sense as well as very real. How do you approach structuring and pacing a sequence?
George: In the case of The Burning of the Books the structure is, to some degree, taken from the book to which it is a kind of companion piece, commentary, or marginalia – Elias Canetti’s Auto da Fe. It generally follows the episodes in Canetti but takes liberties. It doesn’t describe or replay the book: it floats in the world the book establishes and feeds off it. That, by the way, is simply the making overt of the symbiotic relationship that exists in all art.
Each sequence has its own structure. The Penig Film starts with the evocation of Clio, the muse of history, re-imagined as a film director moving from festival to festival. Penig was the second concentration camp in which my mother was incarcerated: film of the camp’s liberation exists in US army records. I found it on the web.
In Time of War was simply in the order the individual poems were written, but then it’s not so much a sequence as a set.
Northern Air, a poem commemorating the dead of 1956 in Hungary follows the central idea of Nova Zembla as a frozen region. History as something frozen.
The Wrestler poems are remnants or products of the novel I set out to write against the background of British Professional Wrestling from 1956-1979. The poems are chronological in the life of Szabo, my central character. The novel didn’t - and won’t - get written, but something will beside these poems.
The Storyteller (title borrowed from Walter Benjamin) deals partly with my mother’s life, but, essentially with the world of the senses. It’s not really a sequence more a series of essays in a potentially promising form.
The other sequence that could and should be considered as a sequence is The Birds, which is an attempt to understand the long-term love of a single person by thinking about the other person’s personhood.
Sarah: I love the line “the crowd passes unconscious of being a crowd”. This seems to reflect the energy poems create when they rub up against each other in a collection. What kind of crowd are you hoping this collection is?
George: It should be a miscellaneous energetic crowd that is busily exploring the extents of its own freedom to move. I saved these sequences precisely so that the various elements might mix and see what kind of choir they produced. Prose poems (I have never published such things except in magazines), free verse rhetorical narratives, also new for me (The Burning of the Book), the deeply intricate formal weaving the six Canzones (very few canzones exist in the English language and I think I have written more now than anyone else, now or in the past, beating Marilyn Hacker’s five without ever meaning to), even a few poems that play with page space (Pools) should mingle with forms that have become familiar to me: terza rima and sonnets. The exploration of form is, I think, a core aspect of the exploration of material. You have to seek a voice in a form to discover what else is lying there, never before touched.
Sarah: I’m assuming this is your motivation for rhyme throughout the book?
George: Hard to tell where motivation ends and excuse starts. It is, I suppose, my justification, an attempt at a reasonable justification, to answer a question where most of the possible answers are covered in cobwebs. If it has to be an excuse then let the excuse be sheer delight.
Sarah: It seems that you, like many writers, excavate the same themes and subject areas throughout your work. What is opened up as you excavate? And when, if ever, do you decide enough is enough?
George: We are limited beings but things sometimes become clearer as we go along. A poem doesn’t fully resolve a subject. It is only a testing ground for a provisional answer, but in the case of poems, as with all art I suspect, the testing is all. Our lives are formed and, to some degree determined, by our circumstances. Those circumstances do not leave us. For me the question of history is not an abstract question: it involves my parents, myself and my children to begin with but spreads out from there, first to all those I love and care for, and beyond them to the faces and figures I pass in the street. It is part of the enigma of human behaviour and the human mind. It is how that mind is formed in the context of the world. That is an endless subject because people will go on surprising us.
Enough being enough? If I must defend myself on that account I think you will find I have written poems on a considerable range of subjects from football and wrestling and pastoral through love, politics, colour, history, England and God. I have written children’s poems, librettos, scripts for musicals, songs for composers, and translated a considerable variety of material. There is little on nature, that is true. But I am an urban creature only recently inhabiting a semi-rural environment,
Nevertheless it is true that certain themes recur - and that is because they continue to invite exploration. Do you say to a poet: you have written a poem about death. That’s the subject covered, move on. Did anyone say to Dante (with whom I am not comparing myself of course): Must you go on and on about hell and stuff? All that Catholic baggage? Or to Rilke, We’ve had just about enough of transcendence from you! If one were writing the same poem over and over again one might possibly be growing dull or simply trying to get it right, more lifelike, more true. The poem is not in the subject: it is in the trying. Fail better!
Enough is enough? Of course readers may very well decide enough is enough. That is their choice. In that case, bye bye reader, ave atque vale.
Sarah: Well, I'm planning to stick around for the next collection. This one being an astonishing array of experiences that, as Boyd Tonkin says in The Independent, take your breath away, and yet demand rereading and reliving of a history not far past, nor far ahead.
Thank you, George, for your incisive and insightful comments.