A shorter version of this interview appears in Poetry Wales 55.2
Jonathan Edwards: The biography on the back of your collections has always carried the information that you came to poetry through songwriting. I was wondering if you could enlarge a bit, on this path from songwriting to poetry, and on how your experiences in songwriting might have shaped your poem-making?
Paul Henry: I started writing songs in my teens, mostly sub-Bob Dylan pastiches. I loved Bowie’s lyrics, and Joni Mitchell’s. Before this, my mother had been a professional singer – rehearsing classical arias around the house. I suspect her voice and repertoire were more influential. All the family were musicians. Music washed over me from an early age, too much music. I’d be outside most of time, playing football or fishing, for silence.
Then Gillian Clarke visited my secondary school and here were words behaving differently, in white space. The Sundial https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/21/saturday-poem-the-sundial-by-gillian-clarke was the first book I bought.
When I found Dylan Thomas’s poems they got into me more than any song I’d heard: Where once the waters of your face…, This side of the truth…, The force that through the green fuse drives the flower…, Once below a time… Their first lines, especially in the earlier poems, read like the hook line from which the rest of the poem dangled, albeit brilliantly. Most popular songs survive in the ear by a single line or phrase and it’s no wonder musicians flock to his lines. One great line is enough, for a song. For me though, Thomas was a gatekeeper of the page. You heard your way into the page and the poem’s craft. You were hooked.
So I graduated from writing sub-Bob Dylan songs to sub-Dylan Thomas poems! I still wrote songs but my limitations as a musician outweighed those in my verse. I sobered up my reading with R.S. Thomas, and then all the “Anglo-Welsh” poets who necessarily reined in sonority, who had to step out of range of the wilder Thomas’s sonic boom. The good and bad effects of his genius are inestimable, strong enough to have infiltrated poets of the stature of MacNeice and W.S. Graham.
I’m not sure if this explains how songwriting unlocked my poetry. Basically, the page’s inner-song, inside the white space, excited me more than the sung song. What the air forgave, the page did not, and this drew me in.
JE: Can you say a bit more about this difference?
PH: The two exist in close but different spaces, for me, though both can learn from each other. A great melody will elevate cliché and abstraction. The poem’s page is a harsher terrain. Conversely, free verse poems don’t always hear themselves in the white space. I’m talking about caesurae, enjambments, line- and stanza-breaks; or they might stall their rhythm for no effect, or ignore a glaring refrain line.
I don’t really want to know where a poem ends and a song begins but there’s a space between them and, for me, it’s defined by the page, this and the distance between their creative springs. I stopped writing songs for ten years. The song lyrics felt like an obstacle to the poems, a dilution. I always take comfort when someone gets heated, in making the case for a great songwriter, like Dylan, being a poet. It’s as if being a great lyricist is not enough. It sets poetry on the aspirational pinnacle. A great song is a great song, it’s not a poem. Some songs dance back and fore across the hazy space, touch hands and let go. And when the hands briefly touch, say in Leonard Cohen’s tribute to Lorca, ‘Take this Waltz’, or in Ghazalaw, http://www.ghazalaw.com/about/ Tauseef Akhtar’s and Gwyneth Glyn’s collaboration, or in that single line, image, simile… from any Dylan song in the canon, all thoughts on differences recede.
JE: What brought you back to songwriting?
PH: I came across Patrick Kavanagh’s work. https://www.tcd.ie/English/patrickkavanagh/poems.html Something in his lyricism teetered on the edge of song, closed the space. Dannie Abse once wrote to me about Kavanagh. He thought him a “strange mixture of poet and verse-writer” and this may explain his impact. I’d originally written the words and music simultaneously. After reading Kavanagh, I altered the process of my songwriting, revisiting poems from my collections and turning them into song lyrics.
JE: In terms of music and form, I was wondering who your influences are. One feels instinctively, in the formal complexity and beauty of your work, some kinship between your writing and that of writers like Thom Gunn and Thomas Hardy. But I don’t think there’s anyone else on the planet who could write a Paul Henry poem. Other than Paul Henry, who should people read if they want to write like Paul Henry? I think W.S .Graham is an important writer for you?
PH: I love Graham’s intimacy, how he addresses the “obstacle” of language through an almost supernatural voice. He talks to you from both sides of the words on the page, shuffles time through sleight of tense and viewpoint while staying inside your ear. He came out from under Thomas’s spell with something unique. Like Yeats, he “remade” himself in his fifties. It’s good that people are catching up with him.
In more recent years, poems like ‘Penllain’ (there’s an on-line critique by Sheenagh Pugh https://sheenaghpugh.livejournal.com/30332.html#cutid1) and ‘The Hesitant Song’ owe much to W.S. Graham and partly the vernacular you find in Dylan Thomas’s prose. What music there might be in my work is a distillation of these two and a patchily bilingual childhood.
Hardy is another voice I go back to, either to listen or to rake through his forms. The creased spines on my shelves belong to Hardy, Frost, MacNeice, Emily Dickinson, Graham and Patrick Kavanagh. I often wonder if Kavanagh’s influence on R.S. Thomas has been overlooked, that’s assuming R.S. was able to get hold of his work.
I’m less certain of Thom Gunn’s influence. With the exception of ‘The Man with Night Sweats’, it can sometimes feel like one’s reading the impeccable craft more than the art, though I keep ‘The Sense of Movement’ behind glass, beside scores of living poets whose blushes I’ll spare.
JE: A favourite poem of mine, from Ingrid’s Husband, is ‘The Lion Girl.’ This poem seems to be in interesting dialogue with Louis MacNeice’s ‘Reflections.’ MacNeice is a highly interesting and distinctive writer musically – his flexible line lengths, his use of slant rhyme, his highly complex forms in poems like ‘The Sunlight on the Garden.’ To what extent was he significant for you?
PH: Enormously, as much for the company of his poems as for their influence. This idea of the brittle pane, between interior and exterior worlds, is everywhere in MacNeice. ‘Corner Seat, ‘Slow Movement’ and the famous ‘Snow’ https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/91395/snow-582b58513ffaecome to mind. And it lets him time-travel, in poems like ‘Soap Suds’, ‘Order to View’, ‘The Brandy Glass’… Time was his clay. He’s always shifting the temporal viewpoint, turning the telescope. The energy of his formal range lifts that pervading sense of loss.
The thrill of first reading him stays with me. He claimed the clutter of modern life for poetry, didn’t he. Michael Longley, in his introduction to a Faber selected, cuts to the chase: ‘Seldom can the lyric have carried so much freight and remained airborne.” Perfect.
More than through songs, I realised the incantatory power of the refrain-line from MacNeice, from ‘Autobiography’, ‘Prayer Before Birth’, ‘Meeting Point’ and others. Sometimes he ties up a poem’s laces too neatly, its threads, at the end of a poem. But his presence still underscores so much in contemporary poetry.
JE: In his book The Poem, Don Paterson https://www.faber.co.uk/author/don-paterson/ talks about poetic devices as being there for the poet rather than the reader: they allow the poem to be written: ‘poetic devices…for the poet…are the very means…by which the poem itself is drawn forth from the mind.’ ‘If the poet is working well,’ he says, ‘it can feel as if it [the poem] is conjuring itself from nothing.’ I wonder if this rings true for you, and that music can be a way of generating energy in composition which facilitates the poem’s writing?
PH: This is the ideal condition, isn’t it, when the first draft melts onto the page like Frost’s ice-cube on a stove. When technique is in place, everything is in place, primed for mystery. All these devices are mysterious, when they come together. Sometimes a poem, in its early stages, tries to make itself known through a particular form, intimates how it’s falling on the page. You’ll only hear what it’s telling you if you instinctively know the form. Later drafts , when the moment is lost, will allow you to check the building work is secure but you’ll have lost this early choice, if unaware of the poem’s formal message. All free verse experiments begin in these ancient laboratories.
In terms of music generating poetic energy, I can only think of one example right now, a poem called ‘Moonlight’, about my niece playing the Moonlight Sonata. It emerged in Beethoven’s “cut” ¾ time, to mimic the original composition.
For me, it’s a different energy happening with poetry. I tried to define its quality in a poem called ‘Twelve’, about the musicality of silence. In case I’m sounding sure of myself, I should add that the last poem I wrote was inside the emotional fall-out of hearing a Tim Buckley song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMTEtDBHGY4 Coming back to devices, the musical energy of metre belongs to everyone.
JE: I saw Glyn Maxwell give a reading at Hay a few years ago and he said something to the effect that ‘In the battle between formal and free verse, the wrong side won.’ I wonder if you could talk a bit about how you feel about this idea, and its relationship to your work.
PH: I see free verse as more a variation of formal tradition, a kind of vessel for the ghost of forms, an echo chamber, rather than oppositional. Free verse feels slightly better equipped to eavesdrop on the music of common speech. This is its trump card, over conventional forms. It moves, as Eliot said, between “fixity and flux”. And nothing is fixed. Traditional forms have adapted to the vernacular of their times. Don Paterson’s anthology, ‘101 Sonnets’, comprehensively proves the malleability of a form to its age. Both sides win, if the free verse is informed by the centuries. I think bum notes are harder to hear inside the personal jazz of free verse. This makes it more difficult to get right, doesn’t it – Frost’s “tennis without the nets”. Pick your metaphor! Free verse should know the rules it breaks then trust in the white space, audaciously. It’s the deft splicing of iambic lines in Stephen Knight’s verse, or Kathleen Jamie’s internal rhymes that still somehow touch the ear. Personally, it’s taking me longer and longer, in the drafting process, to know what form a poem will assume. I try to trust my ear. By the way, I think we should all read Maxwell’s On Poetry.https://glynmaxwell.com/books/
JE: It strikes me you’ve always ploughed your own furrow, stylistically I mean. Did “trusting your ear” help you find what, to me, feels like a unique voice in poetry?
PH: We’re all ploughing the same field. There is only the poem. If you become too self-conscious of the zeitgeist there’s a danger of compromising your voice, of straining it. I’ve been lucky to have had an editor in Amy Wack who believes in the work. It took a while to find my voice, I think.
In The Milk Thief there’s a sequence called ‘The Visitors’ https://www.paulhenrypoet.co.uk/the_visitors.htm – short sketches of twelve female relatives – quiet, slight, half-rhyming poems but the first time I felt comfortable in my voice, its rhythms, the use of white space and somewhat archaic symbolism. I was listening to the page and it felt right, at last. In terms of imagery and sound, the sequence trusts in what the reader will see and hear, in their fusion. It repeats plain words like “sea”, “blue”, “light” and “keys”, a device Pound calls logopoeia. Across my collections, I tend to refrain certain words, names and images, like musical motifs, towards an accumulative impression, or sound. The diction in ‘The Visitors’ was simple and approximated to its time. Some caesurae became ensuing, indented stanzas, a spatial device often distorted in web publications. If my poems are musical at all, it began here, in my third collection.
JE: I often think that poem-making is simply about trying to make something that sounds good. Music trumps everything: I’m much less interested in truth, for example, and especially the truth of detail (as opposed to some big emotional truth) than I am in the sound of things. I was wondering what you felt about this?
PH: This chimes with Eliot’s “auditory imagination”, the idea of “bringing back” something ancient – the original heartbeat of poetry. I think sound and meaning fuse in a poem. Without doubt, there are poets whose sound one reads first. We hear the sea’s metres in Walcott’s terza rima, in ‘Omeros’, as much as see them. Then there’s the Tennyson frequency. One doesn’t just read ‘In Memoriam’, or ‘Maud’, or ‘Locksley Hall’, one tunes into them. And if poetry’s risen from the page again, it’s strange that more performance poets don’t draw more on its lyrical roots. Guittone d’Arezzo’s sonnet began life as a sonetto, a “little song”, a derivation of “sonus”, the Latin for “sound”; the ballade was a dance song; roundels and roundelets spin and sing; the villanelle was first sung on medieval French farms… Anything overtly metrical, like cynghanedd, connects us to these musical and phonic traditions. I don’t think it has to be pretty, either, if a discordant clash of rhythms and language conveys a poem’s complete sound, the author’s idiom.
JE: The presentation of time in your work is often connected to your relationship with your sons, in poems like ‘Three Trees’, https://www.paulhenrypoet.co.uk/three_trees.htm from Ingrid’s Husband,https://www.serenbooks.com/productdisplay/ingrids-husband ‘Late Kick-off’ from Boy Running https://www.amazon.co.uk/Boy-Running-Paul-Henry/dp/1781722269 and ‘Lockyer’s’ from The Glass Aisle. https://www.caughtbytheriver.net/2018/02/the-glass-aisle-paul-henry-review/I wonder if you see any relationship between the sense of music in your writing and your treatment of time?
PH: Another poem, about one of my sons, ‘The Black Guitar’, https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/nov/08/poem-of-the-week-paul-henry which Carol Rumens has explained better than I can, perhaps holds everything in relation to time in my work. It uses musical intonations and ends with the sea (Cardigan Bay) as a temporal metaphor. Jackie Wills, who reviewed The Brittle Sea, https://waleslitexchange.org/en/books/bookshelf-view/the-brittle-sea-new-and-selected-poems I think for this journal, saw the book’s sea as “a container of the past”. I’ve used it metaphorically in poems like ‘Penllain’ where Geta’s room is a rock pool, an impression of time held still. This poem owes a lot to W.S. Graham’s “constructed space”, in its intimate address to its subject. Since The Milk Thief, https://www.paulhenrypoet.co.uk/books.htm where this sea metaphor evolved, many poems begin with a sense of this coastal light, a sense of absence.
JE: What you say about light and absence is interesting. I was wondering whether poetry may have any spiritual dimension for you? With apologies for referencing Don Paterson again, he talks in his afterword to his translations of his versions of Rilke’s ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’ about how he began translating and memorising the poems as a reaction to his atheism: ‘I…sought some text I might get in my head as a vade mecum, whereby I could simply remember what I now held to be most true.’ If music becomes a way of creating a poem that lasts, it’s a step to say that poetry becomes something to believe in, and it strikes me that if any contemporary poetry may be considered transcendent or the sort of thing that people may hold up to this standard, it would be poems of the lyricism of yours. I wonder what you think about all this? And could you say more about light, and absence?
PH: This is a big question. Poems and songs have always been secular prayers, of sorts, haven’t they, committed to memory like verses from religious texts. Your quote from Don Paterson’s afterword reminds me of my late father-in-law, a butcher who’d left school at fourteen, an atheist and a wonderer. He had all these poems inside him – Shakespeare’s sonnets, some Blake, some later Romantics… and these formed his vade-mecum, his glass-in-hand devotion. Now Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Prayer’https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ni/2009/05/carol_ann_duffys_prayer.html comes to mind, with its liturgical last line and aching spaces. It seems to affirm the spiritualty of the art.
Years ago, I became excited by a Seamus Heaney essay on Patrick Kavanagh called *‘The Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanagh’https://www.faber.co.uk/9780571210916-finders-keepers.html. Concentrating on Kavanagh’s later work , Heaney suggests the locations of Kavanagh’s poems became “luminous spaces”, existing as “transfigured images”. He then recalls his own childhood farm – both poets grew up on farms – and a chestnut tree planted by an aunt, to mark the year of his birth. He explains how, in his early teens, the family moved away from the farm, and how the new incumbents cut down the chestnut tree. Then he recounts how he began to write out of the space where the tree had been:
‘…. it was not so much a matter of attaching oneself to a living symbol of being rooted in the native ground; it was more a matter of preparing to be uprooted, to be spirited away into some transparent, yet indigenous afterlife. The new place was all idea, if you like; it was generated out of my experience of the old place but it was not a topographical location. It was and remains an imagined realm, even if it can be located at an earthly spot, a placeless heaven rather than a heavenly place.’
All this rang true because it mirrored and somehow validated an early experience of writing poetry. In my late teens I lived in Llangors and used to climb Cockit Hill on Mynydd Llangors (the most westerly range of the Black Mountains). To the west of the hill are spectacular views of Llyn Safaddan and Pen-y-fan. But what kept pulling me back up the hill was a dying tree which stood in the cleft between Mynydd Llangors and Mynydd Troed. The sunlight and shade of four fields altered and spun around it. I’d stare at this ‘Y’-shaped tree for hours on end, from a rock on Mynydd Llangors. Its flayed bark was white, a brilliant light conductor. I’d write out its light; and when I returned from college one Spring, to find this tree, like Heaney’s, had been cut down, I still climbed the hill , staring more intensely at its point of absence. Other mirages of light began to inhabit the space – a patch of sand on a beach in Cei Newydd; the sea light at the end of a cliff’s tunnel between two coves, a window in Aberystwyth where my mother sang…
I’m not sure if I can properly explain this writing light. Perhaps it’s Emily Dickinson’s “Slant of light” which, in another of her poems, is freighted with a “quality of loss”. Or it’s what Francis Bacon, in his experiments with light, somewhat dismissively termed ‘the uncertain light of the sense.’ I don’t want to understand it, but I believe in it.
JE: I want to ask about your process of working on The Glass Aisle’s performance version , https://www.paulhenrypoet.co.uk/songs.htm your collaboration with Brian Briggs. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/jun/19/stornoway-brian-briggs-interview How did this work, in terms of writing poems which were also songs. Was it about writing poems and then trying to turn them into songs, or the other way round, or were you thinking about both forms as you wrote?
PH: The joy of this collaboration lay in its mystery. When I play some of the songs now, I can’t remember who wrote what and where, though Brian wrote most of the music and I most of the lyrics. Lyrically, I’d work off the poem which appears in the collection, raiding the best lines, adding new ones, adjusting rhythms and metre, sometimes turning consonant rhymes into full-rhymes … Brian would then change and add the odd line in composing the melody. We’d bat things back and fore. Sometimes I’d chip in musically. The process often made me reassess the original poem, redraft it, the song lyric acting as a kind of purifier, or dust extractor!
Working with Brian, and occasionally with his Stornoway bandmate, Jon Ouin, https://www.jonouin.com/ brought back the precision entailed in building a song, analogous of redrafting a poem but much moreexhausting when it’s “redrafted” again in the studio or during rehearsals. I had to up my game, musically. Brian’s voice melts an audience, and his songs are… well, check out Stornoway. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Afs9TfLzUDc We met through his wife, Jane Houston, http://www.resurgenceprize.org/encantado-by-jane-houston/ herself a gifted poet. I suppose the collaboration quietly acknowledged all those years in my youth, writing songs in bedsits. I had sometimes thought them misspent.
JE: Given the format in which The Glass Aisle https://www.serenbooks.com/productdisplay/glass-aisle was toured, it strikes me that you may in some cases have been engaging people in poetry from outside its traditional audiences. Can you say a bit about how you found the process of delivering poems in this form, as opposed to more traditional poetry readings? I often find that reading a poem to an audience is the final stage in its composition, forcing me to make choices I’ve been weighing up as a poem nears completion. Did you experience something similar, with The Glass Aisle tour?
PH: It was great to work with festival audiences. No chapel air or awkward Hms between poems, which you sometimes get at poetry readings. At festivals, if they like you, they’ll stick around; if not, they’ll move on. Across sporadic tours of the work I kept making changes to the piece. As you say, the audience can help finish the work. Consequently, the poem in the book differs, in places, from the poem on the The Glass Aisle album. https://soundcloud.com/theglassaisle
I should add that there were four people in this collaboration, which started life as a Creative Wales Award https://arts.wales/ – the aforementioned Jon Ouin, who produced the album and occasionally joined us on stage, and our amazing agent, Becky Fincham, the true creative force behind its performances.
JE: Lastly, can I ask what the next steps are for Paul Henry? Can you talk to us about works in progress, and how the music will continue?
PH: A new collection is slowly taking shape. The poems feel like a tonal development of ‘The Hesitant Song’, the long poem mentioned earlier, and also the idea of the sanctity of song.
Some books are being translated, into Italian and Malayalam. Beyond this, there’s only that nervous silence we’ve both heard, between poems.
* Seamus Heaney – Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001 (Faber).
Other sources are noted in the Poetry Wales print version of this interview.