Neil Astley on Hydra, 2016 (photo: Marzena Pogorzaly)
BLOODAXE publishing legend, poet and novelist NEIL ASTLEY is engagingly quizzed by Kirsten Norrie for MONK about his experience of living (and nearly dying) in Australia, the soul’s search for its release in language – and his affinity for the humble sheep.
KN: Neil, one of the images that recurs in several of your interviews is that of your being trapped beneath a collapsed house in Darwin, Australia in the cyclone disaster, which you describe as a revelatory moment. Certainly it conjures something between Buster Keaton and a Saul/Paul experience. Could you elaborate a little more on the effect it had on you; could it any way be described as a spiritual flash of inner knowledge in that profound and frightening situation?
NA: I think I can best elaborate on the effect of that experience by quoting from two poems I wrote in response, ten years later:
The house was being torn apart with us
inside, each wall the wind was breaking down
felt like the final blow, each rending sound
the firing squad which faced us for six hours.
We didn’t crack. The darkness screamed and roared.
They wouldn’t shoot. I knew if we survived
I’d not want anything. Being alive
was all I thought about, until they fired.
(from ‘Darwin Cyclone’)
Ten years this Christmas: never gone, not passed
over the house, the cyclone has us still
under its eye, whom it chose not to kill.
Each breath it lets us have could be the last.
With night our blindfold, a mattress to shield
each blow, we stand each shock as timber shudders
jarring through rubble. Each shriek of wind orders
our execution. I wait to be killed.
Nothing can help me know. If the next gust
wrenches a girder or some stobie pole,
and lines it up exactly with the hole
where the roof howls above, then die I must.
Anger is alien. I have no tears.
I’m grown a quiet man these past ten years.
(from ‘Darwin Survivor’)
2 thoughts on “Neil Astley The SHEPHERD POET”
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.
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.