Neil Astley The SHEPHERD POET

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A century earlier, Christian missionaries would have been eradicating Aboriginal beliefs and mythology, but what I saw in Port Keats (which has since grown into a modern town called Wadeye) in 1974 was very much like how the Green Man must have been accommodated in the early centuries of Christianity in England. That mission was founded in 1935 to unite under one Christian roof people from three warring tribes, the Murinbata, Maringar and Murinjabin, and the old mission church was decorated with images painted by Aboriginal artists of beings from the Dreaming, the Aboriginal time of creation. Dreamtime is eternal, an ‘ever-present and immutable reality which underlines, and is expressed in, time’, wrote A.P. Elkin in The Australian Aborigines, my set text in the classes in Aboriginal mythology I attended in Darwin. The dreamtime is re-entered in sleep and at death, through ritual and through the frenzy of corroboree dance. Procreation involves the spirit of a child being called from the dreamtime to the womb.


“A poem lives in its language,
which is body to its soul…”

KN: Bloodaxe is renowned for its multiplicity of voices – from the so-called avant-gardism of a major twentieth and twenty-first century figure such as J.H. Prynne to the more popular presence of the gifted and engaging Jackie Kay. Elsewhere, you’ve spoken a little about your approach to accepting poetry, through gauging an engagement on the part of the poet. Is there also an intuited, a sensed approximation for the type of work you support? I’m thinking a little here of Charles Olson and his inference of the energy field of text itself which can also be seen in the etymology of grammar – ‘spelling’ for example. Would you agree that this is a palpable magnetism embedded in poetry and if so, how do you respond to it?

NA: That multiplicity extends to readers as well as poets, and there are many different ways in which all kinds of people read and respond to poetry, ranging from a more cerebral, linguistic engagement with the work of poets such as Prynne, to the emotional connections other readers might make with the work of Jackie Kay, or the spiritual sustenance many derive from reading R.S. Thomas, David Scott, Denise Levertov or Jane Hirshfield. All these are poets I admire and publish. I also edited the anthology Soul Food (2007) with my wife, Pamela Robertson-Pearce: this has the subtitle ‘nourishing poems for starved minds’ and has been much loved by readers for its fusion of the spiritual and the thoughtful. Unusually, perhaps, in the poetry world, but very helpfully for a poetry publisher, I find myself able to respond to a wide range of very different kinds of poetry in its own terms, on many levels, open to and appreciative of whatever I feel is authentic and well-wrought. That palpable magnetism you describe as embedded in poetry has to be not just present but fully charged in the language, imagery and music of the poem. A poem lives in its language, which is body to its soul. Joseph Brodsky believed that our purpose in life as human beings was ‘to create civilisation’, and that ‘poetry is essentially the soul’s search for its release in language’.

KN: Were you brought up in any formal religious context? Did your parents attend church, for example, and would you adhere now to any spiritual or religious framework in your thinking and being? If so, why? If not, why not?

NA: No, our family didn’t attend church, but I went to a Church of England primary school, and later, religious teaching was integral to the moral values instilled in us at Price’s School in Fareham, Hampshire. Established in 1721, this was a grammar school on the English public school model with morning assembly presided over by masters wearing gowns, along with houses, caps (prefects had tassels on theirs), its own cadet force and a mission to turn unruly boys into gentlemen. Centuries of Pricean tradition went to 

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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