For those who believe poetry is too staid to comment on normal life, Paul Farley's work is a breath of fresh air. His poems contain heapings of pop culture, with layers upon layers of references such as treacle, CCTV, burning monks. Using humour and rhythm to organise the torrent of his words, he brings chaos to order and then order out of chaos. "The Atlantic Tunnel", his latest collection, makes for a fine introduction to the Liverpudlian poet, whose ascent in Britain was swift upon the publication of his first book of poems, "The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You", in 1998.
More Intelligent Life exchanged a few e-mails with Farley after he read in in New York with Paul Muldoon (a transcript of which is available here). He discussed what it is like to create a collection that reaches American audiences, his use of slang in his poems and his approach to teaching students how to find pleasure in poetry.
More Intelligent Life: I was interested in what you said about the evolution of your poem "Treacle", about the way you used it to connect previously unrelated things. I looked back through some of your other poems and started to notice a similar way of layering and juxtaposition. Is this important to the way you work in general?
Paul Farley: You know when you’re looking out the window on a plane flying over the sprawl of a city, and every now and then something on the ground will flare up for a moment, a glasshouse or a pool? I think it’s a bit like that: you might be the only person, for a few seconds, seeing this intense reflection. You’re in just the right place to register it. Except, with a poem, the things that chime with each other and ping up might be anything: a phrase you’ve overheard, something you’ve just read, a memory, an image. If these find a line, then away you go, and one thing leads to another. It’s as much luck and happenstance as anything else. After that, the poem is a record of your excitement and attention as things find their shape and fall into place.
MIL: This is your first definitive collection of poems and the first to be released across the Atlantic. How does it feel to put out a collection of selected poems? Does it allow you to look back on how your work has changed? Has your work changed?
PF: The Collected is the monument, the Selected more of an invitation: who said that? Whoever it was, I think they were onto something. This book does feel like an invitation to a US party from an obscure English host. Hopefully, somebody will turn up. You can’t help but notice patterns and recurring themes when you’re assembling a Selected.
It’s difficult for me to say exactly how the work has changed over 15 years, except to notice how I keep revisiting certain sources. It feels more circulatory than progressive. I was talking to a poet once about the way most of us only have three, four, five types of poem that we’re always writing, and because we never get them perfect what we’re really doing is making repeated attempts on our templates. Another poet I know reckons there is only ONE poem that we’re ALL trying to write. A bit like that Monty Python sketch of the funniest joke ever. Though I think that’s stretching it a bit.
MIL: What was it like to read in America and produce your first book for American audiences? Is there such thing as a distinctly American voice? A distinctly English one? Do you find fundamental differences in the making and reception of poetry across the Atlantic?
PF: It’s like being translated into English. I’m interested in what travels, and what doesn’t, in making that Atlantic crossing. I’ve a Liverpudlian accent, which in the UK comes with all the baggage that any regional accent carries, but in the States this is harder to detect: I often just seem to sound English, or maybe Irish. But "distinctly English" would be difficult to pin down. Some of the American poets I’ve admired—Bishop, Hecht, Wilbur, say—have some English antecedents; but they’ve also wider, non-Anglophone influences, so the "distinctly American" voice is a complicated affair, too. How many "Americas" are there? You could only generalise. I guess somebody like Frank O’Hara could have only happened in that particular New York of the fifties and sixties, just like Whitman did in the same city a century earlier.
A friend of mine left the US in the mid-1980s, and I remember him telling me how different he found the UK as a place where poetry might happen. He thought that here, poetry still had a curious, intelligent general readership outside of the universities which he felt had dwindled away back in the States; stories about the Laureateship made national news, there were BBC programmes devoted to poetry, poets were audible, and in some ways they seemed more central to the nation’s cultural life. I haven’t lived in both places, as he had, though it’s an observation I’ve heard several times since.
When I was just in New York, I went down to the Bowery Poetry Club to hear a few poets, and got talking to a couple afterwards. I was struck by just how much poetry there is. I mean, there’s a superabundance in the UK, too, but the scale of it in the States… You could never, ever read it all. And, in a city like New York, you could visit ten, 20 different poetry-related events on any given evening, they told me. That’s a lot of poetry. And yet it’s supposedly a marginal activity, a poor relation to the other arts, let alone the wider culture. Maybe we’re living through an invisible boom.
MIL: You described teaching as leading the students who are able to find pleasure in poems. How do you go about this? How do you find pleasure in poetry?
PF: Once a student realises that a poem isn’t an artefact kept under toughened glass and guarded by trip sensors; that it’s possible to compare a poem to a piece of recorded music, or a painting, or a movie, or anything that’s made in a cultural sense; and that, unlike some other cultural things, a poem is yours simply by memorising it, that the conditions of ownership are different, that it has this portability…Once you get into all that, I think some students find their own ways of inhabiting poems, of getting inside them, and working out how poems can be enjoyed, can even be entertaining. Yeah, I said it, as Wanda Sykes would have it. You could argue that poems might require a more active engagement than some of our more passive diversions, but music and song, allusion, wit, playfulness, soul… All pleasurable things to engage with, and we forget pleasure at our peril.
MIL: I think there is a misconception that verse should be high-minded and built to last, without temporal trapping of modernity such as the internet, or CCTV. Which is silly as every other genre of art integrates pop culture. You throw tonnes of cultural references and brand names into the pot. How did you start integrating this into your work and do you have any reservations about "dating" your own work?
PF: I like the idea of a poem being equipped for the long haul, but absolutely don’t think that can only happen at the exclusion of anything pop cultural, or technological; or slang, or argot. I suppose I took the view that these things are part of the texture and fabric of our lives, either widely in the case of the former, or very locally in the case of the latter. You could get hung up on durability, working on a kind of Homeric timescale and admitting only stones and rivers and trees and the sea. There should be a word for it: posteriphilia, or maybe posteriphobia?
I think any poetry tuned into its own particular here-and-now can "date" in all kinds of unforeseeable ways: we might have to look up John Donne’s "flasks" to see he was talking about the stars, or what John Clare meant by "bumbarrel". But it isn’t something I’ve worried about. I grew up steeped in popular culture, and it must have materially altered the way I see and hear the world, so what are you going to do?
MIL: Listening to you read I was made very aware of all the internal rhythms and rhyme in your work, which I admittedly didn't pick up on when I read them at home. How important are these elements to you? Do poems need to be read aloud to be understood properly?
PF: Sound is important, yes. You can go on the sound of a line while you’ve only an imperfect or limited understanding of what’s happening. Ideally, the poem for me has to be doing something on the page, which means in the reader’s mind. The page is the meeting point, but it’s a complicated relationship. Even with poets who weren’t recorded, there’s often still this sense of a distinct voice, even if it’s only a version of the reader’s voice. Then something else happens when it’s read aloud, when the reader gets their mouth around it, so to speak. And hearing a poem read aloud—especially by its author—can enlarge it in some way, or enrich it. It can give it another dimension so that, hopefully, you want to return to the printed version renewed, or at least seek it out.
MIL: I love your poem "The Mind". I love the way the poem develops on its own but then the knife seems to twist in the last line, adding to and altering the meaning. How did you go about writing this poem? Did you have the last line from the beginning?
PF: I didn’t have the last line, no, but it started out with a dream I had about my liver speaking to me. It’s almost embarrassing to admit this—dreams and alcohol and poetry—but I’d been through a phase where I was steaming it a bit, drinking to excess, nothing debauched but a few months of steadily overdoing it. In the dream my liver told me in no uncertain terms that I was hurting both of us. What I find really odd about this now though is that it reminds me of Ted Hughes’s famous dream of the burned fox-man who came to visit him when he was an unhappy student, and said something like ‘You’re hurting the two of us’! I must have known about this, and wonder whether in some way his dream has influenced mine. Anyway, at the time, I just remember how struck by it I was when I woke; it seemed like I’d received an important message my body was trying to articulate, a warning. And the poem got going from there, from that line in fact: "The liver won’t stand for much more…"
MIL: What will you do next now that you have put this collection to bed? Are you writing something else?
PF: Yes, for the past few years I’ve been working on a very long, book-length poem, called "The Electric Poly-Olbion", which is a version, or a revisiting, of Michael Drayton’s "Poly-Olbion". This appeared in 1612 and is pretty much sui generis, a long chorographical poem on England and Wales, and my poem follows in his footsteps four centuries later. I still occasionally turn out shorter lyrics while I’m supposed to be working on this behemoth, in fits and starts, and would hope to gather a few years’ worth together for a new book in the not-too-distant future. I live in hope.
"The Atlantic Tunnel" (Faber & Faber) by Paul Farley is out now