Neil Astley The SHEPHERD POET

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Neil Astley Bloodaxe
Neil Astley introducing Helen Dunmore at the launch of her first collection, The Apple Fall, at Morden Tower in Newcastle in 1983 (photo: David James)

I didn’t know then that Newcastle was a thriving centre for contemporary poetry. In those days the poet Jon Silkin used to sell his literary magazine Stand to people waiting in theatre queues. With his dishevelled hair, white beard and earnest manner, he looked every bit the impoverished poet, and sold hundreds of copies hand-to-hand by playing this part. In the course of helping me part with 50p for the latest issue, he learned that I was an ex-journalist with experience of newspaper production work. A week later I had a part-time job as production editor for the magazine. By the time I started studying English at Newcastle University, I was not only working on Stand but going to Friday night readings at Morden Tower, where I was introduced to a still wider range of contemporary poets, from agitprop, avant-garde and pop poets to lively new poets and highly respected literary elders, and attending weekly folksong nights at the Bridge Hotel, home of the High Level Ranters. I also came into contact with editors of other magazines and presses active in the North East at that time, each with its own distinctive editorial style and particular areas of literary interest. Bloodaxe’s eclectic, democratic style of publishing was inspired by Newcastle’s energetic, internationally-minded poetry culture.

“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 left Newcastle for Northumberland in 1993, and Bloodaxe followed in 1997, priced out of its city centre offices by urban redevelopment. So Bloodaxe’s forty years have been split more or less evenly between city and hinterland, for fourteen of those years in the Tarset valley not far from where I live (and where Basil Bunting lived during the early 80s), and for the past five years in the nearby market town of Hexham. But we’ve kept strong links with Newcastle, and with Newcastle University in particular, which houses the Bloodaxe Archive and NCLA (Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts), for some year now the primary focus in the city for live poetry and literature events, including Newcastle Poetry Festival. As well as publishing many poets who live or have lived in the North East, from Basil Bunting to Anne Stevenson, I’ve celebrated all the poetry and songs written about the region, past and present, in the anthology Land of Three Rivers (2017).



MAY 2019 Kirsten Norrie  MONK

[top image: Neil Astley on Hydra, 2016 (photo: Marzena Pogorzaly)]

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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