Feature Poet Interview: Andrew Duncan (UK)

Adam Fieled: Formally, the paratactic quality of your lines could align you with the Language poetry movement. Nevertheless, the narrative element in your poems is strong enough that one feels moved from "A" straight through to "Z" by them. Are you conscious of a dichotomy here between narrative movement and paratactic "zig-zags", or is this an unconscious process?

Andrew Duncan: I did quite a lot of work on parataxis at one stage of my life. The basic information I found was that it has strong associations with working-class speech, and that dialect writing has very infrequent parataxis. This was asserted of Vulgar Latin, 2000 years ago, so it is quite a deep distinction. I find this difficult to square with its presence in LANGUAGE poetry, written by people presumably of high educational levels. I would say that its presence in my writing correlates with listening to rock music and folk song a great deal. There is probably a link between parataxis and lines which are complete in themselves, without enjambement – like all song and all early poetry. I don’t think the decision about movement through a poem is conscious, although it is part of the process of composing every line. MAK Halliday coined the term “cohesion” to cover the area which includes decisions about parataxis, syntaxis, and hypotaxis, which probably has a lot to do with the question “is this a null and stupid line break or a good one”. This is a large topic!

Basil Bernstein used parataxis as a key component in his theory of language and class. Bernstein was trying to answer the question “why do children from income groups D and E do incredibly badly in anonymous written State exams” in terms of a gap between their language and the language of the classroom and exams. Other linguists misheard the message as “lower-class speech is poor in information”, got upset, and threw away the key question about academic success and social mobility. Science failed here because emotions became too violent. If you get a room of British people talking about these issues, they will very rapidly split into two groups who don’t want to listen to each other!

Where science fails, older and darker subsystems come into play. There was a stage (say 1968-75?) when sociology, and sociolinguistics, seemed able to provide the solutions to the problems tormenting society. A lot of people got involved with them as a means of carrying out political commitments. The instrument seems to have broken under the pressure. The crisis of British Marxism may have inspired the most revolutionary stage of modern British poetry – and brought it to an end.This isn’t directly part of my problem in tuning cohesion in my poems. But if we take the thesis “we will promote social mobility by dumbing-down poetry and withholding information from the lower classes”, I don’t buy it! Not at all!

Writing a line is like designing something on Auto-CAD – I just keep on producing variations and looking at them from every direction until I find something that works. I am not conscious of why a variant does not “work”, or of where the variations come from. So, where do intuitive decisions come from? They may embody conscious activity – with its products which “sink” down and are drawn on, years later, when making intuitive decisions. This may have been unsuccessful conscious activity – an intellectual crisis faced with parts of a conceptual field which was never resolved. So theory played a role – including the theory I learnt from other people.

The superiority of the hypotactic style supposedly has to do with making the implicit explicit, whereas folk songs make everything clear without ever saying it. Although I do have a book called Text and context, I feel that science has not reached this area (and the book is too difficult to actually read!). This area is of course where poetry has problems crossing the Atlantic

The most attractive thing in verse movement is the sense of boundless freedom. I am aware that I deviate from this – my verse often circles round, is frozen like a snake in a glass box which keeps pushing its head against the glass and can’t move on. The I-subject is not simply enjoying glorious freedom – he is thwarted, blocked, and moving into a social structure which is arrayed against him. The ‘glass box’ ends motion but forces on us a qualitative shift – into thinking, into imagining the social order. If the snake could see itself in the glass, it would become a mammal.

You are probably aware that one of the key splits in the English poetry scene is between the London school (with great reliance on parataxis) and the Cambridge school (with insistence on complex syntax and argument structures). I don’t have any stylistic affinity with either school.

I don’t know anything about LANGUAGE poetry, I admit. A crude view is that this is a label which is supposed to reduce several thousands of disparate cultural complexes to a single category – which we can then, supposedly, understand. But in fact they are several thousand different things, and that informational complexity is what sustains a cultural life (which might just burn out after a couple of years).

AF: The sexuality in your poems is raw and vital but seems un/de-politicized. One never gets the sense that you are flaunting it or grandstanding with it to get attention. How do you factor sexuality into your poems? Do sexual politics hold any interest for you?

AD: I don’t think they’re in the poems. I can’t write about personal experience in terms of conscious knowledge and the beautiful civic ideals proposed to us. This is like making love while you are being projected onto a screen 100 feet high – the same gestures acquire a second meaning which is visibly wrong.

Talking about l’amour is a good way of annoying people. My poems have a strong flavour; but the expectation that people will be attracted to your poems about love is no more likely than the expectation that they will be attracted to your person. I wouldn’t want to argue with anyone who disliked my love poems.

Let me quote from one of my favourite records, a song by doo-wop group The Dubs called “Where do we go from here? It took a lot of mistakes to ever get this far. But I want to know, I really want to know, where do we go from here?”

I used to have this experience with someone incredibly well-informed who would lecture me, late at night, about a hormone oxytocin, linked to trustfulness, suckling, orgasm, and internal pressure control and the release of fluids. I think she may have been making a point about how untrustworthy I was; but how much I might have learnt if I’d been able to stay awake. I always got confused and called it “oxytoxin”. Oxytocin is the messenger which makes fish release roe, or spawn, vascular pressure displacing the ocean. So we’re talking about a blissful regression in which we immerse and become weightless, the inner and outer waters flow together, and the ocean itself becomes a sexual medium, in which spates of precious fluids form spirals and constellations, sight is replaced by ripples flowing along the skin, personal identity and the time sense disappear. I can never remember this clearly. Sandor Ferenczi wrote a book Thalassa which says that we turn into fish during coupling. I thought it was nonsense. Fish? In Chinese poetry, love is symbolised by ducks. If I was devising a goddess of love, I might well make her a Mouse. Mice are addicted to Lurve, as we know. He was a very persuasive man.

My grandmother was told she would have to give up her job as a teacher if she got married. The State obliged her to become a housewife. This was a gross abridgement of her civil rights. I could cite a hundred such stories, and it would be idiotic not to be a feminist. I accept that property, in our society, is used as the site for a fantasy of domination, and that property is used as a metaphor for the status and obligations of women. It would be inconsistent then to write books in which women don’t suffer and where they are perfectly autonomous. Idealisation of the situation also idealises the male protagonist, something highlighted by feminists. I was most impressed by writers who questioned the monologue of male poets about women. The poem is my property, but I don’t own someone else’s experience. The gap between sex and love, between illusion and experience, between fusion of identity and domination, between me and you, is not an invention. If you stop idealising the male figure, you can go on writing love poems. I realised that I could stay on air by writing about someone who wasn’t unusually sensitive, who wasn’t sophisticated, who missed his part in the music and made terrible mistakes. I could get away from writing reflexively by never rising above the immediate situation. I’ve always felt that if you present people with comfort and harmony, they don’t engage, whereas if you present them with characters in a terrible fix, they will think it through carefully to try and find out where do we go from here. So you show Love going wrong, basically. The poem takes place at a point on the curve well before knowledge arrives, where ignorance and conflict and uncertainty are at their height. It’s trapped at that point, where all the loose energy is. Then I cut to the next scene of conflict and improvisation.

The insights in my poems are drawn from people who were much more perceptive than I, who knew much more than I did, who saw the patterns and were generally my superior. These were the women I fell in love with. They explained things to me, often slowly and several times. This does raise the question of who owns the poem.

AF: The big debate among poets now seems to be about internet vs. print publishing. How do you feel about it? Do you prefer one to the other?

AD: From some point, before I was nine years old, I used to go to Loughborough market on Saturday mornings and buy American comics, Spiderman and things like that. And on Saturday mornings, still, I go to a library, a record shop, or a second hand bookshop. It’s one of those physical things like, do you write from 8 till 12 mid-day or from midnight till 4. It’s a habit which has scored itself deeper over 40 years, which gives me withdrawal problems if I don’t do it. And I do prefer shopping for books to scanning the Internet.
The issues raised by the Internet are fascinating. Evidently people outside the zones of dense cultural activity, the capitals, got into it much more quickly. It was much more useful to Susan Schultz, in Honolulu, than to someone living in London. It was a leveller. There is an issue here about proximity –

What does literature deliver? How does it transmit a personality? Or is that Stone Age egoism?
What is the anatomy of group feeling? how does it decay as radius increases? What is the “inside”?

Identification (is this the same as “group feeling”?) is a Stone Age thing, fundamental to everything else yet resistant to theorising – where attempts are of great interest, but really tentative and conjectural. It’s much deeper than literature, and literature could presumably be replaced by a new way of carrying out the archaic functions. Is there a connection between open and closed groups, and open and closed (impenetrable) texts? Should we talk about the design of the social network, rather than the design of the text?

I have just been looking at a vast anthology (Neofitsial’naya poeziya), all on the Internet, of 288 Russian samizdat poets. It was so hard getting samizdat books and magazines in the 1980s, now you can get thousands of pages of old samizdat poetry for the cost of your printer consumables. And, Russians are not interested in the era pre-1989 any more. This project is not commercially possible in print. I’ve also just spent loads of kronor on Swedish poetry of the 1940s, also bought via the I-net. Fantastic! Who was Sven Alfons?

I’m wondering how much small press poetry has to do with the daily intimacy of tiny in-groups. The stifling warmth of their mutual knowledge and rivalry. And the specialist shopping for magazines that are on sale, once, for a few hours, in one room. The ‘rich warm mud of Bohemian life’. Going to a poetry weekend in Cambridge where two groups hung out in two pubs and refused any contact with each other, & you had to choose which one to be allied with. I propose the poem to a reader as a place they are in the centre of – fearing they will see it as a margin to their own moving centre.

I love shopping & am trying to write a poem “The History of Shopping” which starts with the Goths making the trip to Rome, seen as the inventors of tourism. Byzantine historians described the steppe peoples as insatiably acquisitive. It’s a sort of Imelda Marcos travelogue.

Andrew Duncan featured on PFS Post.