Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to email@example.com
This interview is taken from PN Review 50, Volume 12 Number 6, July - August 1986.in conversation with Roy Fuller
Roy Fuller was born in Failsworth, Lancashire, in 1912. Educated in Blackpool, he qualified as a solicitor and, after five years working in private practices, joined the Woolwich Equitable Building Society, of which he is still a board member. During the war he served in the navy. In peacetime he served as a governor of the BBC. He was elected Oxford Professor of Poetry in 1968. Nowadays, he lives in Blackheath, London, a bus-ride along the busy Old Kent Road and into the quiet of Greenwich.
Before the publication of his New and Collected Poems (Secker & Warburg/London Magazine Editions) this summer, Roy Fuller had put his name to thirteen volumes of verse, including one earlier Collected, published in 1962. He has also written novels, notably Fantasy and Fugue, The Father's Comedy and The Carnal Island, together with books for children, three volumes of autobiography, and technical works in building society law.
Since the publication of the New and Collected Poems, Roy Fuller has completed a new sequence, Subsequent to Summer, which has now been published by Salamander Press.
Brian Morton - Your Collected Poems has just been published. Was it a long-planned project or did it arise more or less as a matter of course?
Roy Fuller - The actual book was an accident, really. It was prompted by somebody else. I hadn't any notion until that particular moment of doing a Collected.
Was there much temptation to tamper with earlier poems or simply to leave some of them out?
Well, it's pretty complete. My son said I should put in everything. That was his line and I agreed with it. In the end I left out a few things, but not much. I did rewrite when I did my previous collection. With this, I tinkered a bit, but not a lot.
Clearly it doesn't in any way represent a full stop to your career but looking back through the volume, how does it seem to you?
I thought it was a better book than the other Collected. I didn't think it was too bad. For one thing, I rather improved the earlier part. I did rewrite some very early poems - no more than half a dozen - that had never been in a collection. A lot of my friends wouldn't agree but I think the poems I wrote later in life are all right, passable.
Does preparing a volume like this allow you to reassess your writing career as a whole or is that left to the reviewers?
Only at moments and only then in the sense that one having got the thing there in book form - not in proof or typescript - one begins to think whether it is any good or not in a rather more detached way than previously. I thought it was more varied than I would have imagined. But then all poets want to feel that they're varied. The great complaint one has about reviewers is that they form an opinion of one facet of you and don't really read what's there. It's very curious. They think up the old fogey side and they forget that there are a lot of poems about general subjects; not philosophical poems but poems on general themes. That passes them by.
Do you resent that?
I've become very blasé in my old age. I've been re-reading Wallace Stevens' letters. He says somewhere - and it struck me very forcibly - 'A poet has to be accepted'. I don't think he was accepted for a very long time and I don't feel I have been accepted. Sometimes quite young poets are accepted. To me, someone like Seamus Heaney has been accepted. He doesn't seem to me to be a terribly good poet. Perhaps he isn't a fair example because he's done good things but there are other poets for whom a great effort is made to appreciate what they have done. I don't feel any great effort has been made for me. The reception of this latest book has been very meagre, very grudging. It's not much use complaining about a fellow's collected works that it doesn't run like Eliot and Pound. That's a terribly grudging approach. I think you should say what the fellow does write about. Still. . .
In 'Found Stanza', and in a kind of Walter Scott persona, you complain of being more appreciated as a lawyer than as a poet. How tongue-in-cheek was that?
The funny thing was that for donkey's years I found the law not disagreeable but not of any great intellectual demand. Quite demanding, but only in a nine-to-five way. But then I started to get all sorts of jobs that made the thing quite interesting and I was greatly appreciated in the sphere in which I was moving. I was a tame building-society lawyer but then I became advisor to the Building Societies Association. I also went on a committee of the Law Society which in those days was putting forward recommendations for reform of the law of conveyancing. We were pioneers really, for all that has been very much taken in hand now. That came in my late forties and made me enjoy the law much more than I ever had.
Do you think you would have written more - or differently - had you been, say, an academic, with a relatively more leisurely lifestyle?
I'm a quick worker. I was a quick worker as a lawyer. I don't think I would have written any more but I would have written it a bit better.
Does that apply to your novels? Presumably they were more demanding of time anyway.
I think the novels suffered from not having more drafts. That's what I regret most. I wanted to be a novelist as a young man. I never succeeded in writing anything publishable until I wrote a boys' story in the last years of the war. I then went on from there fairly regularly until Carnal Island which was about twelve years ago. I haven't written another novel since then. Though they got good reviews they just didn't catch on.
Relative to the poetry, do you think the novels have been unjustly neglected?
They were all out of print and the copyrights had reverted to me, which is where I imagined until about a year ago that they'd stay. But then I had enquiries from a paperback firm in America who are bringing out the three crime novels and Chatto/Hogarth are bringing out four others and there's been talk of an omnibus edition by Carcanet. I must say that by the time I retired, I wasn't discouraged, but I began to need a push to go on writing prose fiction. I'd done ten or something like that but the idea now of getting inside someone else's head ... I think anyone who found the poems interesting would enjoy the novels. They vary a great deal in tone but by and large I think they're the same kind of thing as the poetry.
You've said that you don't have much appetite for revision. Does that suggest that you find the process of writing comes quite easily?
I didn't find it easy. I'm just quick. I only used to do one draft of a novel, though I did more for Carnal Island and, of course, I did type them all out afresh, which is equivalent to another draft. If I'd had as much leisure and known as much as I know now, I would have done at least two drafts of things.
Wallace Stevens, whom you obviously admire, never seemed to suffer any contradiction between his poetry writing and his insurance work. Though you've said, in your lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry, that you're sceptical about the idea that someone can, to put it crudely, make a living as an intellectual, have you felt any contradiction between your literary and your legal careers?
I think in the end, not. The idea of the literary man has changed greatly in my lifetime. As a boy, I wanted to be someone like Arnold Bennett, a good writer who nevertheless made his living by writing. That very quickly became impossible: Aldous Huxley did it but he must have been one of the last. As to being an academic, since I never was one it's easy to say I would have liked it. I think, as you say, it is on the whole an easier life. But I don't hink it necessarily results in it being any easier to be good at writing, just easier to lead your life. It's the old Baudelairean conflict of the artist and the bourgeoisie. It's a love-hate business with the ordinary mass of mankind.
But to be forced to write, to have to write to schedule, just to make ends meet. . .
Absolutely hateful. It's true that to do a nine-to-five job with the ordinary holidays and to try to write prose and poetry on top of that makes for a very hard life indeed. But everything I've done at the behest of other people I've absolutely hated. I've done a lot of reviewing but that's through weakness, through not being able to say no. One makes so many friends in the literary world that it's hard to turn them down.
You did hold the Oxford poetry professorship. Was that important to you?
Not really, no. It had its funny moments and I must say that when I'd done the damn thing I had all this mass of material - the lectures - that I'd never have turned out otherwise. In that sense the satisfaction was rather ex post facto. I was conscripted into doing it and it was entirely accidental that my name came up. The people in Oxford were faced with a lot of what they regarded as unsuitable candidates and my son was asked if I would stand. One can't help but feel rather chuffed at following Matthew Arnold. I did initiate one great reform. I refused to deliver the oration in Latin and they changed the statute so that I was able to do it in English. I'd given up Latin when I was twelve and the idea of reading someone else's in the approved manner simply boggled me. I refused to do it.
These days Latin seems to be on the way out anyway. Did you have a good literary education at school?
Rotten. I wasn't literary at school at all. I was mathematical. As for home, my father died when I was very young but he had read. He had a bookcase full of John Buchan, things like that. So there were books about when I was younger. My mother would borrow books from the twopenny library but not literary stuff. Yet my brother and I both became fanatical readers; he is four years younger than I am and has been a great book-collector all his life. He was reading Dostoyevsky at twelve. It was just some bug we were born with.
And it's one that seems to have been medicated out of existence. You don't often find teenagers these days who read in that way.
I'm very often astounded by this. I'm still on the board of the Woolwich and I drop in there once a fortnight and talk to various people. I'm astounded by the young executive now, who doesn't appear to read at all. You daren't mention any kind of general cultural thing unless it's been on the telly or in the Sunday papers. Any interest in reading is something quite foreign.
Does that suggest that the literary culture as a whole has gone wrong?
I wouldn't say I'm greatly alarmed but I do sometimes have that fear. I'm too old now to be seriously alarmed, but I get a sense, particularly when I read about America, that even a sort of literary culture is arising which is not congenial to literature. And that is even worse. One doesn't mind it forced into enclaves, even if it's buried for fifty years, but if a whole alternative nonsense arises that's ghastly.
Reading the early poems in the Collected, the immediately pre-war things, there's that sense of foreboding there about the fate of literature.
I think that was what forced a great many people into extreme political beliefs and actions - because they felt that only this lot would see you through into the future, that nobody else cared enough. Certainly, one didn't contemplate any kind of democratic future such as we've had since 1946. That didn't seem to be on at all and I'm sure that for someone of your age it's difficult to think back into that kind of situation.
Yet we're being asked to believe that economically and politically - and presumably also culturally - the 1980s are a repeat of the 1930s.
No, they're different. I certainly feel that since the war the prospects have been worse than they were in the thirties, simply because of the dropping of the bomb. That seems to me to have been far worse than anything. But then I must say that the rise of Hitler - Mussolini having already been established - seemed a pretty solid block to a future that was acceptable. Looking back, I suppose the political side dropped off rather feebly. In the thirties I certainly felt that some enlargement of poetry, writing generally, had to be achieved and that in some way the working class would become part of it, responding to education and political experience, but of course it hasn't at all happened that way. Fortunately, my left-wing activity was early; I was very young. Through various circumstances I never took it up again. I cooled without it mattering very much to me. I wasn't like Stephen Spender, it wasn't a religion to me.
Your god didn't fail.
Not a bit. In fact I was still fairly hopeful of left-wing movements after the war. Not that I did anything very much. I've become more and more sceptical about almost every figure on the left. Politicians are a pretty bad lot. I've had a good deal of experience in a sort of left-handed way of the corridors of power. I was on the BBC Board of Governors for over seven years and one gets to know a lot of politicians quite well. I learnt a lot about the way things happen.
Do writers still matter? or are they being marginalised in some way?
I still feel they do though I must say they seem to have less and less power, partly because they have become corrupted. When you think of old Robert Bridges setting up a committee to preserve English - well, my God, if ever such a committee was needed it's now. And to preserve English from the very people who should safeguard it. You're fortunate in coming from Scotland. You come from a country where the spoken tongue and many other things are in a far, far better state than they are down here.
Wasn't there some sense in the 1930s that, by your writing and quite apart from any other activity, you could actually change things?
I don't think the question would have arisen for me. I was too much a little magazine man in those days. It was very much harder to appear anywhere important or with a circulation. I think I would probably have taken it for granted then that whatever side I was on, proper standards of English would still have to be kept up!
Martin Booth begins a new critical book with the words 'British poetry is a mess'. Does that seem fair to you, given your feelings about what's happening to both the language and those who use it most consciously?
I'm too old to see the thing in movements or trends now. As you get older you tend to think in terms of individual figures who have emerged and there have been some good new poets. Since this has happened pretty regularly since the war, I wouldn't generalise.
Turning to the war itself, that was clearly an important experience though not one that became the complete obsession you see in other poets.
I was terribly lucky. It was someting one anticipated through the thirties. I felt I would have to fight. When the war did come a lot of the change of circumstances was comic and predictable. Since I was so lucky as never really to see any shots fired in anger I suppose the experience passed me by. I came out and I forgot it. Not like the Graveses and the Blundens and so on who were always looking back or thinking back.
There's still a cliché that the Second World War produced less good poetry, or fewer good poets, than the First. What's your reaction to that?
I think if you were to do some sort of arithmetical sum you'd get much the same answer. Owen was a great poet - or potentially so - and I think Sassoon was a very considerable poet who through the war introduced a diction and a style into poetry which was really startling and good. There were a lot of good poems written during the second war. Keith Douglas was a good poet, but he was only a boy, a very clever and energetic fellow who might have done anything. I'm certain he was very promising. Alun Lewis was more conventional but he would have made his mark. He would have been a good sound literary man, depending on what life did to him afterwards. He certainly had talent.
There's a strong interest in scientific ideas evident in your work. You've said you were good at mathematics at school. How have you kept that up?
It's just been an element of enjoyment in reading, an intellectual stimulus. It's really a Tennysonian thing. Nobody could have been more interested in the outward forms of the natural world than Tennyson and yet he had this great interest in what lay behind them. I felt that, too. Psycho-analysis since the war has interested me, but I've really been a very lazy reader of scientific subjects.
Even so, there's a discipline and rigour in a lot of your work that must come from somewhere. You were saying earlier that you've never done much in the way of rewriting or revision.
I have in recent years. I've had more time and I've felt I could improve. And indeed I have improved, no doubt about that. Whether I could have done it earlier on or not I don't know for one's different as a young writer. Certainly to revise ex post facto is often to make a muck of things. I think more time would have helped. I would do six or seven drafts of a poem now.
What actually goes on between those drafts? Are you making verbal changes or are you actually thinking through or rethinking the thing as you write?
Verbal changes, or else if the thing is unfinished, incorporating some new notion. Mostly, though, it's a critical, verbal revision.
How do your poems arise? Do they emerge more or less entire, or are they built up line here, line there over a longer period?
In recent years I've done a lot of short poems. My new book is a sequence of 14-line poems - not sonnets - and since I delivered that to the publishers I've written about a hundred new poems, most of them short. They arise, I think, through observations coming to one in a rhythmical form, mostly, I fear, iambics, which everybody says is outworn. Nowadays, my typical poem is something of a mixture of reading, observation and rhythm. I've found free verse very, very difficult. One sees quite often that a thing ought to be in a free verse and I greatly admire those that can bring it off, but I'm too old a fellow to do it. When I was sixteen or seventeen, the Sitwells were all the rage. They wrote in free verse and I wrote some early poems in free verse. But I don't see the line endings somehow. It all seems too arbitrary. You might as well make a proper go of it. There is a place for free verse but it is a difficult form.
It is by no means true, though, that free verse has dominated absolutely over the last fifty years.
Stevens could write wonderful blank verse but he pokes in a great many irregularities. I wouldn't dare to do what he does. He admired free verse. It's astonishing, but he even admired William Carlos Williams. Of course, you can't take everything Stevens says as gospel; very often his tongue is in his cheek.
Williams is often sold as the quintessential American poet, with no dependence on European forms. Even allowing for that, don't you find the scale of his reputation a bit of a mystery?
My God, yes. I came across something of his the other day and thought, This fellow can't write for toffee. It's this acceptance business again and Williams is accepted. There's no doubt that if you keep reprinting poems, the reader thinks, Ah, yes, I know this, I like this. But the famous red wheelbarrow and the Breughel thing, they're really rather feeble, it seems to me.
Do you read much verse in other languages?
No, I can't. I'm absolutely not a linguist. I didn't do Greek, had to give up Latin, and I regret not having a classical education. Someone like Bridges, his notions of prosody are always very securely underwritten by classicism. I have always, certainly in later years, felt the lack of that. People say I'm a good craftsman but I'm not so sure, certainly not in the way Bridges was.
And Stevens wasn't always spot on.
He would have been the first to say that. When he got to the office, if he had a few lines, he finished them off. They may not have been his best but they had an immediacy. To add to the business of doing drafts, to make the thing more natural would be part of the process, to clear out as much as possible.
What do you mean by more natural? More like everyday speech?
That was a cliché of my young days, a bit of a hangover from Romanticism. I'm not sure it means very much except the getting rid of poeticisms.
Your son, John Fuller, is also an accomplished poet. What effect has that relationship had on your writing?
A practical one. He simply acts as a friend who reads my work. I've always had somebody in that role and since he was quite young he's done that for me. I rely very much on his criticism. He is a technician of very great skill, willing to take on anything. He also can write free verse!
We've talked about acceptance and about the critics' tendency to push work into rigid categories. How would you like people to approach your work?
I would like people to read and enjoy. There's a lot of bullshit about poetry. I've always believed that if people were to start at page one and just go on from there they'd really quite enjoy it. That's not perhaps a very large ambition for one's work. I see things and read things that interest me and don't see why others shouldn't be interested too. A problem that does come up is whether there isn't too much of the 'I', the ego, about the kind of poetry I write. I can see where that might annoy those who don't like to see the persona on display, or those who think that someone who has worked all his life in a building society shouldn't be writing criticism of the petit bourgeoisie!
Your poetry may be personal, but it isn't confessional in that American sense, Lowell, Plath, Berryman, and so on.
I wrote like that long before people like Lowell. I don't quite know where I got it from. I think perhaps during the war, probably simply from the First World War poets speaking the truth about themselves, that idea that during war one simply has to write about one's own experience. Also, I think that - unless you're Milton - it's very difficult to be a copious poet without being egotistical.
Since the Collected, you've completed a new volume called Subsequent to Summer. Before we finish, can you say something about that?
Really, it's a sort of day to day, or week to week, sequence that runs from autumn through to winter. It's slightly different from the sonnets at the end of the Collected Poems, but in the same line of country. There's a lot of 53-bus stuff in there!
This interview is taken from PN Review 50, Volume 12 Number 6, July - August 1986.