Neil Astley The SHEPHERD POET

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NA: The sheep has been my totem animal since childhood. I don’t know where and when this started. I’ve lived in cottages in various parts of Northumberland for the past 25 years surrounded by and observing sheep. One of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms was the “shepherd-poet” Alberto Caiero who wrote:

I’ve never kept sheep,
But it’s as if I kept them.
My soul is like a shepherd,
It knows the wind and sun,
And walks hand in hand with the Seasons
Looking at what passes.
            (tr. Richard Zenith)

Both my novels were inspired by a growing sense of kinship with animals, especially cats, dogs and sheep, which turned me into a vegetarian. The unnamed Sheep Who Changed the World evolved from Mickey the Judas sheep (whose job it is to lead other sheep to the slaughter in the abbatoir) in my first novel, The End of My Tether, which I started writing in 1996, the same year that Dolly the cloned sheep was born and Mad Cow Disease hit the UK. I finished that book shortly after its nineteen muses were needlessly killed on New Year’s Day 2002: these were the noble and boisterous Suffolk tups I used to watch from my window who were slaughtered along with 2100 other sheep in a flock which did not have Foot and Mouth Disease but were close to a farm which had been infected. Those were the last sheep in England to be slaughtered before the 2001 epidemic was officially declared over.

Soul Food, Neil Astley, Bloodaxe
Neil Astley, The End of My Tether

KN: Some people might not be aware of your first novel The End of My Tether, A Myth of England in 28 Lunar Chapters (2002), shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award, which draws richly from countryside law and lore and is itself a brilliantly complex codification of country ways and values: what drew you to these themes?

NA: The Green Man, Herne the Hunter and the Celtic god Cernunnos combine through the figure of Kernan in the novel, and the Green Man was certainly the catalyst, along with my lifelong fascination with mythology, English folklore and depictions of England and English life from Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry through to Shakespeare to Hardy and Edward Thomas. And seeing stone and wood carvings of the “pagan” Green Man in English churches, I would ask: was that to contain or appease the spirits of the earth, or to bring them inside, as it were? I’m also reminded that our word “pagan” (from the Latin paganus) originally meant rural, before it became synonymous with the worship of many different gods practised in rural parts. The Green Man has always felt to me to be a threshold figure, between human and nature, as well as being expressive of the power of nature. Or did the early Christians bring him into their churches to gain acceptance from those they wished to convert to the faith by accommodating their beliefs? In Australia I visited a Catholic mission at a remote Aboriginal settlement then called Port Keats:

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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