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Interviews

An Interview with David Constantine by Elise Paschen

David Constantine's second volume of poems, Watching for Dolphins (Bloodaxe, 19R3), won the 1984 Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize. He also wrote the novel, Davies, which came out in 1985. Since 1981, he has been Fellow in German at the Queen's College, Oxford. He is the co-editor of Argo and the literary editor of Oxford Magazine. H is translations of Hölderlin and his introduction to Hölderlin's poetry will be appearing next year. His next book of poems, Madder, will be published by Bloodaxe in the autumn of 1987.


One of your primary interests has been Hölderlin's poetry. Did his translations of Pindar inspire your enthusiasm for translation'?

David Constantine: I had tried translation before I studied Hölderlin's Pindar, but certainly when I came to that and also to his Sophocles then my idea of what translation might be like was immeasurably enlarged.

Is it possible to define your own method of translation?

My own method: not mimetic, but attempting to reproduce the original's effects by means proper to my own language. But also, after Hölderlin, I am fascinated by what literalness will do. What literalness did for Hölderlin, translating from Pindar, word by word, was push the possibilities of German up to and beyond the limit of its usual usage. If you take an idiom which is current in the original language and translate it horizontally, across, without any deviation or compromise, you may then end up with something very striking. A tiny instance is the Greek locution 'the navel of the earth'. 'At the navel of the earth' in Greek is perfectly usual. If Hölderlin says 'im Nabel der Erde', that's actually more shocking than is the original; they are the same words, but the effect in the two languages is different. By using literalness in that way, you engender in your own language effects which arc stronger than they were in the original. The same sort of effects may be produced through a literal translation of syntax. It's a sort of test that you might apply all the time, trying to push your own language into usages and shapes that it's not been accustomed to have.

Do you apply this test to your own poetry'?

Only a bit. I think that all poetic language is, in some sense or other, a departure from normal usage, and the relationship between the original and a translation is akin (it's only an analogue) to the relationship between ordinary usage and poetic usage. There is a sort of relationship, and yet there's a gap. The image I've used before is that of refraction: if you put a stick into water, it appears to bend. Poetic usage seems to be a refraction away from ordinary usage in a way that's not readily calculable. The interesting thing about Hölderlin is that he seemed to entertain the notion, at least as a possibility, that you could arrive at poetic language in a kind of pseudo-mechanical fashion via translation, because the translated language is very much like the language he then went on to use in his own poetry.

You said that you have "a notion of making poetry work the way Lorca does; that it should lift off like a chant or a song ... like the Greeks." Could you perhaps develop this idea? How could a poet writing in English achieve such an effect?

I had in mind the combination of Elytis and Theodorakis. Theodorakis set Elytis to music because his poetry was congenial to him. Elytis's poetry is celebratory and has powerful rhythms; a lot of it seems already intended to be, if not sung, at least intoned or chanted. I don't think English works in the same way. There's no use striving after effects that are possible and proper in other languages that really aren't in your own. The proper English tone is more muted, more restrained, a bit more modest. Its pitch isn't so high.

Nevertheless, having said that, I do think that rhythm and movement in poetry are terribly important, and there certainly are verses in English which have got that kind of movement. It doesn't seem to be within my own possibilities, but it's something that one feels. Before you write a poem, you sometimes get a kind of rhythm which is not actually worded at all, but there's a certain feeling to it, a music, and you want to retain as much of that in the poem itself. I think that poetry needs to be spoken aloud. Not always, by any means, but you ought to be able to hear it, the rhythms ought to be felt.

There is an engaging character in one of Heinrich Boll's novels who chants her own compilation of fragments of Hölderlin's poems. It lifts her spirits. I can't write such poems. but I do know how they would feel.

If. let's say, you could write such a poem, how would you go about doing it'?

One would like the freedom of free verse but, in practice, whenever I try to do that, I'm repelled by shapelessness. I then start marshalling the poem into some form. The great risk in that is that formal shape takes over and all of the life deserts the poem. One hopes, in practice, that one arrives at a shape that does not bottle up or kill energy but, rather, enhances or intensifies that energy. Form is very important. I'm not happy with the forms that I use, I keep wishing that I had others .... I don't have forms in advance: it's a bit like a game of Mah Jong, sorting it out initially to see what's on offer, what the possibilities are.

I still believe that there ought to be such a poem which moves along under its own breath and determines its own shape. The poems of Hölderlin's and Pindar's which seem to possess this freedom, in fact, are working against quite determined metrical and formal requirements.

What is the attraction or value to you as a poet of past worlds, such as Hellenic Greece?

They have no absolute status. They supply images by which the way we live now may be illuminated and, where necessary, opposed. It is something that I might draw on, for a particular purpose; at the moment, the Greek and the New Testament imagery is immensely congenial to me. The New Testament, in particular, because of its radical opposition between the injunctions and the behaviour of Christ, and the prevalent set-up. The first such contradiction is the arrival in those very bloody and military times of a helpless baby in the middle of winter. That seems to me a very powerful opposition.

What about the use of miracle in your newer poems?

I was drawn in the New Testament to the whole act of healing, the laying on of hands, or the use of spittle. In an exceedingly physical fashion, Christ spits into the dust. and moulds clay balls out of the dust and lays them on the blind man's eyes; or he spits on his fingers and touches the dumb man's tongue. The body is meant to be effective, as a vehicle for doing good. I suppose. I have a morbid worry about those things which one may think of as basic bodily qualities. What the body actually has for the expression of love; all the fluids of the body which are so important in that respect. And now fear has entered into that through AIDS. People nowadays are out of touch. There has been a loss of touch in a figurative or in that real sense.

In the poem that I think you're referring to, "Martyr," I was feeling particularly gloomy about the way things are, and I was thinking, in particular, about the kids in Northern Ireland and in EI Salvador who grow up thinking that violence is normal. I imagined such a child being confronted with an act of miracle. The idea of "Martyr" is that the miracle happens on the spot where they carry out their executions, so it is a very bloody spot. Then Christ comes and heals there. But, the boy's senses are so mucked up that he cannot differentiate the doing of good from the doing of evil; and he is traumatized, as though Christ had committed an inconceivable act of violence.

You said once that "Poetry is in running opposition to mediocrity". Could you elaborate?

Poetry, whatever else, is supposed to enlighten the imagination. And the imagination is in absolute opposition to the belief that life is flatly rational and reducible. All imaginative activity is, in some sense, recuperative. I suppose that a basic premise in poetry is that there is such a thing as an inner life or an imaginative life or the psyche or whatever you want to call it. And, I believe, if you call up that, it's a contradiction to the view that life is only material and reducible and exploitable and buyable and sellable. Poetry actually insists that there are things which you cannot buy and sell. In that sense, it becomes politicaL because there are certain political and social set-ups where people are more abused and are more exploited and treated like material and have more put into them of merely material incentive. In that sense, poetry becomes more and more an act of opposition to the values by which, increasingly, society is managed. It may be what religion used to be: the great opposition to all that, the insistence on other values.

In each of your volumes of poetry you seem to have consciously approached myth from a different angle. Could your poems "Eurydice" (A Brightness to Cast Shadows, 1(80) and "Orpheus" (Madder, 1987) serve as examples for this evolving treatment of myth?

No - they arc rather similar. In both the myth is made personal. All the time, the myths have been used when they seemed to me to be offering appropriate imagery for things I wanted to be writing about. The poems are ways of dealing with human relations in terms of myth. The first "Orpheus" poem, "Eurydice", is actually about somebody who seemed to me to be burying herself in her own private hell, and nobody was ever going to come along and fish her out. It was no use her sitting there, expecting an Orpheus. They'd given her up; they'd gone and left. I suppose it's an encoding of a particular point, but then, one hopes, that it will attach itself to a wider sort of resonance. In Madder, there arc myths around, but it's not crucial that you should recognise them. I would hope that you would be able to see the essential structures that might be bodied forth by these myths. There are some poems, of course, where it helps to know the story. I've been trying to get away from that, though. What I have tried to do with "Orpheus" is to get away from the 'scholarly' allusiveness of, say, 'Gyges' (Watching for Dolphins); but in that poem too the myth was made very personal.

Often myths from the New Testament and from Classical Greece are pitted against each other in a single poem; for instance, in "Mary Magdalene and the Sun." To what extent do these two systems of belief inform your poetry?

Agape and Eros: I want both. Also, since I believe this world is all we've got, the stories I like best are those which are concrete, tangible and earthly. But I must emphasize that in writing poems I am not putting together an ideological system .... I am, though, attracted to the energy of Greece as opposed to the charity and compassion of Christianity.

Why is the Demeter myth such a resonant one for you?

Because it demonstrates the consequences of wrongdoing against the earth. For that reason it seems to me a very topical myth. There is a poem in my next book which finishes: "Look where Persephone/Wound in rags/Leads blinded Demeter by the hand/Seeking an entrance to preferable Hades."

The Demeter myth illustrates a woman's means of resisting it is a feminist myth.-It's a story about abuse; the abuse of women and of the earth under a power which is used to getting its own way, massively identified with male control and bullying. The woman's manner of rejecting that is to withhold. This is a woman's possibility for resistance; I don't say it's the only one. Demeter simply withholds and does not cooperate. As soon as that happens, there is famine and ruin. And an accommodation has to be arrived at. When I translated "The Hymn to Demeter", I underlined what seemed to me the essence of it. All the charity in "The Hymn" is done by women; they represent what is loving and charitable and lasting. And all the bullying and connivance in force is Zeus and Hades and Poseidon.

A fascination with death seems to characterize your newer work. Even though the subjects are, at times, popular old songs, Hades seems ever-present.

The curious thing about writing is that you put images into circulation which then haunt you; it is painful. Writing a poem is the only occasion in which one is absolutely honest: you are actually putting down on paper things that do appal you, that you are frightened of. You may not be aware of this when you're writing; it will only strike you afterwards. As Eliot said, "most of our lives are an evasion of ourselves ... " and I think that's how you get by. Poetry is a kind of non-evasion, a facing up, whether you're very brave or not. But actually putting words together as honestly as you possibly can may then create appalling images.

You've written in almost every conceivable literary medium, and are in the process of turning Davies into a play. What does prose enable you to do which poetry doesn't?

It's a particular weakness of my poetic language that I can't do more in it. My range isn't great enough. More generally though, the question of prose or verse, lyric, epic or drama, is one of appropriateness. You see what the subject needs - and try to keep an open mind and not to think too categorically (surprising displacements, combinations and acts of defamiliarization may be possible.)

Would you find it difficult, as a poet, to write naturalistic fiction?

If you write poetry, you'll like to use words in a way which is not normal; you concentrate a lot on words and sentences and the construction of sentences; that's what the pleasure of it is. There are large parts of writing fiction when you only need to be rolling the story along, and saying what happened, sometimes in a very plain fashion. There's a reluctance on the part of people who write verse to use language as a means, really, to anything: it's the end itself, and draws a great deal of attention to itself. Also, I'm not enough interested in everyday reality to write a naturalistic novel.

Does your desire to fictionalize those stories you recorded in your new novel, The Merry-Co-Round, have any bearing on a notion of Betty's in Davies: "She had often thought that when he was talking about himself he was talking about her too"?

Davies and - more complicatedly - The Merry-Go-Round are composed of voices. For both subjects that seemed to me the only appropriate form. I was interested in possible versions. And poems too are very often the adoption and exploration of possible views. They are successful if they move the reader to assent to the adopted possibilities.

It is, for the most part, a matter of avoiding a too obviously personal voice. Sometimes you will express yourself - or see yourself - very clearly by adopting somebody else's point of vIew.

Does your female persona offer you this kind of vantage point? There seems to be a prevalence of female speakers in your recent poetry.

Using a woman's voice gives me a perspective on the male position. Her view would illuminate the male point of view. I wouldn't dare, though, claim to have any particular insight into the female point of view. In a general way I like using personae. I like obliqueness and displacement in poetry, and female personae attract me most. I suppose that women speakers are all part of my Romanticism. With the female, there is still hope.

In your novel, Davies, the offences which Davies commits, particularly at the beginning, are innocent: stealing a shirt, a hoe. As you write: " ... it was the innocence or effrontery of the offence that brought him punishment." This insistence on innocence resurfaces in your poems as well as in your short story, "The Home Boy." Could you say where this interest arises and how will you be developing it in your next project based on the story of Kaspar Hauser?

It is a matter of confrontation - of confronting what we are with innocence. I'm sure it is the job of literature to oppose, and we need figures with which to conduct that opposition. There are famous figures - Kaspar Hauser is one, and I tried to make David Davies into another - but innocence is not a farfetched myth. Innocence is in children and in many adults. Fragments of it litter the world we live in and are a perpetual reminder and incitement. I associate innocence with joy.