Neil Astley The SHEPHERD POET

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the wall not long after I left when the school was demolished to make way for a housing estate. I came top in Religious Education the year I dropped the subject in favour of sciences under parental pressure, so I knew my Bible, chunks of it by heart, and as with many writers, the King James Bible was one of my primary literary influences. The first books I bought with my pocket money, aged 10, were translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I was also borrowing and reading six books a week from the library, but buying those three books meant that they were special. And I lived on the edge of town next to woodland and open countryside, so nature was my other library for the imagination and sense of being.

KN: Is there a particular poem or poet that reflects or embodies this relationship?

NA: ‘The Green Knight’s Lament’ in The End of My Tether would be that poem. It’s modelled on the incantations attributed to the 10th-century Irish poet Amergin Glúngel in Lebor Galála, the pseudo-historical ‘Book of Invasions’ as well as drawing on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf (the passage called ‘Lament of the Last Survivor’), and the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Wanderer’, with a sideways nod to Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’. So it’s inspired by the work of other poets and I don’t think there’s anything else which quite embodies that relationship as wholly as this does. All the species named by the Green Knight were either threatened or had disappeared in many parts of England at the time of writing. Still more will have gone since then.

KN: How do you see or place music in relation to poetry and does this have spiritual significance for you?

NA: Poetry is an oral (and aural) art, and to be fully appreciated poetry needs to be spoken aloud and heard. I talk about this in my anthology Staying Alive, where I say that to write any kind of poetry well, whether in metre or free verse, you need an ear and a sensitivity to language, just as you need a sense of rhythm to play a musical instrument. No writer can develop the sensitivity needed to write good poetry, whether metrical or in freer forms, without reading vast amounts of poetry by other writers. Poetry is a craft learned through much reading, but you need an ear to write poetry as much as to compose or play music, and in modern poetry, what we call “free verse” wouldn’t be poetry without sound rhythmical control. 

Basil Bunting always stressed the importance of the sound of the poem. ‘Poetry, like music, is to be heard,’ he wrote, believing that without the sound, readers would look at the lines of a poem as they look at prose, ‘seeking a meaning. Prose exists to convey meaning, and no meaning such as prose conveys can be expressed as well in poetry. That is not poetry’s business.’ I think Don Share was saying something similar when he wrote that ‘As a general rule, it’s safe to say that if you can paraphrase a poem, it’s not a poem. There’s no other way of saying what Bunting is saying in Briggflatts. The language is action. Great poetry is usually difficult in some way, and then clear in ways we would never expect.’ Poetry has never been a vehicle for ideas, as some people seem to think. Poetry is itself, its mystery and clarity unified through its music. Its spiritual “significance”, if that’s the right word, is experienced in the reading and hearing of the poem, and I can respond spiritually to the poetry of Herbert, Donne, Milton or Hopkins, just as I can to a Bach cantata, without believing literally in the whole construct of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.            

KN: Could we discuss the psycho-geographic importance of Newcastle to you; it’s a city most would see you firmly attached to and has been the home of Bloodaxe for several decades – what first drew you to its histories, its presence?

NA: Here I have to offer a somewhat mundane, if unusual, explanation. My first taste of Newcastle was in 1971, when I experienced the wild excesses of the city’s nightlife in the company of an escaped prisoner called Mick. I had wanted to see something of Scotland during a half-term break from my college journalism course. After hitching from Portsmouth to Inverness, I was on my way home when Mick picked me up outside Edinburgh in a car he’d just stolen. I didn’t know he’d broken out of jail two days earlier and was giving me a lift to help keep him awake. After several bottles of Brown Ale in pubs from Berwick to Newcastle – where we had an especially good time – it became clear that we weren’t going to reach Birmingham that night, and were finally arrested in a lay-by just off the A1 near Darlington. A police patrol had spotted the car parked off the road with two men slumped asleep inside, and checked the number plate. Three years later, in Australia, I was combing through descriptions of English degree courses in the cities I felt most drawn towards, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull and York, all of which looked similar in content, and thoughts of that memorable night in 1971 made Newcastle my first choice.

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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