Neil Astley The SHEPHERD POET

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The entire city of Darwin was destroyed by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day, 1974. The full force of the storm lasted for six hours, from midnight until dawn. I was wedged with my brother under an upended mattress in the bathroom of his house as the whole structure collapsed over us. Both of those poems present the experience as one of facing execution for six hours in complete darkness, with no means of escape, or of survival other than by chance. There was a stoical acceptance of inevitable death in that situation, but also hope: ‘Each breath it lets us have could be the last.’ Hope because breath still followed breath. Afterwards, there was not only relief and elation, which I describe in other lines, the Buster Keaton part, in the first poem, ‘Darwin Cyclone’, but also the feeling of being given a new life. I think I became less wayward and more focused, more in touch with an inner self and with nature, and also more independent in my thinking and more determined to do something more meaningful with my life. I had been working in Darwin as a journalist in what was then a pretty wild place, almost like a frontier town in the Old West, a sub-tropical heavy-drinking macho culture with Aboriginals as the marginalised outsiders. When the city was evacuated, the whole population became refugees. I left with nothing but the clothes I was wearing, so in that physical sense also I was making a new start. The Salvation Army

gave us clothing, shoes and toothbrushes, and a place to bed down each night as we headed south in a wrecked car. It took three days to drive 800 miles to Alice Springs before the car gave up the ghost. Just over a month later I was back in England, in Newcastle, having decided to take up an English degree there that autumn as a mature student: I would spend the next three years reading and writing about books.

Neil Astley in Darwin, Christmas 1974 (photo: David Astley)
Neil Astley in Darwin, Christmas 1974 (photo: David Astley)

KN: Though this might seem an odd question, but I know that the presence and motif of the sheep is a recurring one in your life; you’ve themed a novel The Sheep Who Changed the World (2005) on a rogue and clever ram, for example. Does the sheep as an ‘other’ or attendant animal fortify you through its characteristics? How and when did this creature first accompany you?

2 thoughts on “Neil Astley The SHEPHERD POET

  1. I much enjoyed this interview with the doyen of poetry publishers. I think Astley underestimates what Valery calls, in Poetry and Abstract Thought, the art which ‘co-ordinates the greatest number of independent parts or factors: sound, sense, the real and the imaginary, logic, syntax, and the double invention of content and form’. I agree that poets are creators of affects, giving them to us by means of articulate energy, and enabling the reader or the listener to feel and experience, ‘felt in the blood and felt along the heart’, as well as mentally enter into what is disclosed. But I think Astley is too simplistic when he says that poetry is ‘an oral (and aural) art’: sound is clearly important but as Prynne argues ‘performative sonority’ (Mental Ears and Poetic Work), no matter how nuanced in its acoustic modality when heard or produced out loud by ourselves, is by-the by in our experience of many poems. For example, it is of ‘the essence of the dramatic monologue that it urges eye and ear to collaborate in imagining a person from print, while insisting on the demarcation of their activities’ (Griffiths: The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry). I agree that ‘Poetry is language in excess of the functions of language’ (Bruns cited by Prynne) but ‘this recognition is in danger of being confounded with the vocalizations of text performance’ (Prynne again) if we believe that ‘to be fully appreciated poetry needs to be spoken aloud and heard’. Particular kinds of poetry perhaps but there are many other kinds where this is not the case.

  2. A fascinating interview in which Neil Astley speaks from long, deep and thoughtful experience of writing, reading and publishing poetry. His journey towards poetry, from his escapade with an escaped prisoner in the North East to his near death experience in the Darwin cyclone and on to his immersion in the rich heritage of English poetry, is brought out very well. I was intrigued by his openness to the mysterious influence of sheep, a continuation of a deeply felt tradition that stretches from Biblical literature to the final scene in Robert Bresson’s ‘Au hasard Balthazar’ to Robert Musil’s haunting prose sketch, ‘Sheep, As Seen in Another Light’, surely one of the most remarkable tributes to this animal ever written. I would, however, quibble with a couple of Astley’s points. He remarks that great poetry is usually difficult, but argues that poetry is essentially oral (and aural). I would say that these are often contradictory qualities, insofar as speech sometimes precludes difficulty, whereas writing for the eye, mind and ear (of course) makes difficulty possible, indeed invites it. Poetry written to appeal directly to the ear can often fall into neat but mainly simple rhythms, so as to make understanding easier for a live audience. But the incidental qualities of rhythm and euphony, though clearly important, are no more poetically expressive than imagery, mood and idea. After all, it is unlikely that the complexities of ‘The Waste Land’, for instance, would fare well in the context of more simple (and simple-minded) spoken-word poetry at a festival. It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that though the original sound of a poem is lost in translation, the essential poetry of a poem may well survive. I think it was Walter Benjamin who said that poetry isn’t what is lost in translation but is what survives it, which is why those of us who haven’t mastered, in addition to English, such key languages as French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, Sumerian and Arabic, can still appreciate the universality of the world’s universal poetic tradition through translation. Perhaps it is the case that the power of poetry lives in the relative poverty of language: words as abstract symbols necessarily lack the immediacy of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and emotion, but it is precisely this lack that allows words to transcend the mere senses and their afterglow in images. Pater claimed, incorrectly I would say, that all art aspires to the condition of music, which would surely make the greatest poem a lesser thing than the worst song. Anyway, these are deep issues, and it is to Neil Astley’s credit that he brings them up. By the way, it may well be that it was my late father, a policeman, who arrested the escaped prisoner Mick with whom Neil hitched a lift in 1971. I well remember him about this time telling us at the breakfast table, before we went to school, that he and his colleagues had caught a runaway prisoner from Scotland! The childhood story of the recaptured prisoner has always stuck in my mind.

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