We spend enormous amounts of willpower trying to find a contour to follow where we won’t have that imaginative organ broken apart. So life seems to have one question it asks us over and over: will you have your heart broken with something you care about?
When you experience that heartbreak and humiliation, are you able to make it useful in your work?
I would certainly say so in poetry, and I hope it’s so in human relationships too. I’ve learned there’s a cycle of grief in every art form and relationship. When I finished my last book of poetry, Pilgrim, I realised the tide was about to turn, so I started writing furiously.
There’s that great line at the end of As You Like It, where Shakespeare says: “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.” The songs of Apollo have poetry and lyricism, and Mercury is the messenger god who is getting the work out in the world—through printing it and reading it. I remember when I suddenly wrote a poem in a very different voice and I knew that particular tide was over. There was a kind of a beautiful, poignant grief to it. At the same time there was a sense of completion and harvest, and a sense of thankfulness.
If you read the great German-speaking poet Rilke, around the Duino Elegies, he had an experience of this visitation—of an enormous tidal current of creativity and presence and then the sense of suddenly being left. This feeling of being left is just the fact that you don’t recognise the new territory. You’re meant not to know. I think one of our great tasks as human beings is to find the part of us that is big enough for life, that can put its arms around the part that finds things difficult, that wants life to be different.
I’m just thinking about this idea in therapy where people write themselves a letter as if it was from a compassionate friend.
That’s a good example of the beginning of an internal conversation. The interesting thing is that as you get more and more mature in that particular conversation, you should be able to take judgement, otherwise you’d never write a decent line of poetry. You’d just write a journal which no one else wants to hear. So the judgement, discretion and discrimination—the powers of the empirical mind—are brought in to finish the article or poem. Without the judgement at the end, you don’t have an art form. I think it’s the same in life. So listening without judgement is just the beginning part, and a very necessary part. If you did talk to your real friends like you talk to yourself, you’d never have another friend in your life. So much of internal conversation is coercion, threat or punishment. We’re basically just giving ourselves a good telling off all the time.
One of the dynamics I’m working with at the moment is the art of asking beautiful questions, and I think you can ask beautiful questions of yourself as well as of life and of circumstances. I have this under the heading, “Solace”. You find solace, which is not only comfort but also a place in the greater scheme of things, when you ask beautiful questions in quite often un-beautiful circumstances. The asking of the question itself emancipates you into a much larger understanding of self-compassion and compassion for others.
For me, beautiful questions are pretty rare.
It’s like wanting to meet a beautiful stranger. We just want one beautiful question every now and then [laughs].
Yes! Because when you meet those questions you are bowled over.
If only we could meet a beautiful stranger who has a beautiful question.
Then you know you are made for each other! I’m really interested in what people’s reactions are when you tell them you are a poet.
[Long pause]. Well, sometimes I don’t tell them.
I do the old Irish thing from my mother and turn sideways into the light. Sometimes you can be an hour or two with someone, have the greatest conversation, and then leave, realising you know nothing about the person you’ve spoken to. I either say matter of factly, “I’m a poet.” I know that will always lead on, so sometimes I just say, “Oh, I’m independently wealthy.”
Which is actually how I feel. That has another kind of accuracy.
I was listening to one of your recordings where you were talking about crossing the American-Canadian border, and one of the officials at the checkpoint looked at your immigration card because you’d written “poet” in the occupation box.
Well, I say it at borders. Because that is what I am. Sometimes I say “poet and philosopher.” If you ever want to smuggle anything through a border, just say you’re a poet. They will be so fascinated they will never think to look through anything! Sometimes they say, “Give me a poem.” You recite one for them and you’re on your way. But it’s remarkable, the differing effects of saying that word in different cultures. In certain cultures the poet is seen and celebrated, and in some cultures it’s just a source of puzzlement. In Ireland it’s a big, ballsy thing to say because the standard is so high. Whereas in many cultures you could say you are a poet and no one would know or care if you were a good poet or not. If you went to Iran or China, the word “poet” has enormous resonance. In Japan it would mean that you had spent decades and decades apprenticing yourself to the art. But almost everyone has an imaginative relationship to the announcement that you are a poet. It’s as if it represents something quite magnified in the human imagination. Somewhere there is someone who is attempting to speak the truth. There is a kind of foundational sense of intrigue and curiosity. That’s what I’m working with in all the different audiences.
Now my fame goes before me quite a bit, although I find myself, especially in the corporate world, in rooms full of people who have no idea how a poet or poetry can be useful to them. My job is to put that right in the first minute [laughs].
I always felt that people needed to choose between a strong creative and a pragmatic, strategic life. But the more I read your work, I realise it’s vital that we have both.
We all have imaginations. We all have bodies and empirical, intellectual minds. It’s just a hierarchy of use. First you have the body, and then you have the imagination in the body, and then the intellect and our strategies. As long as you get it that way around then you can be a good scientist or a good artist, or both. There are many periods in our history where there was no real split between the two. If you were an educated man or woman in England in the 1600s you would be expected to be interested in natural history as well as writing sonnets. The same in Confucian China. This is a recent split that came with the Industrial Revolution.