A conversation between Ian Wedde and Jen Webb

Jen Webb and Ian Wedde met in Ian’s office at the University of Auckland on 21 June 2012 to discuss Ian’s approach to the making of poems and connected issues, such as the rhythms of making work, the importance of visualisation and the relationship of poetry to knowledge.

Jen Webb: I’m interested in what it is that you do to prepare yourself to make work. I suspect many writers just get an idea, pick up a pen, and start to write. But what I’d like to know is: how do you know that you’ve been triggered to write poetry? And how do you put yourself into the space in which poetry starts happening?

Ian Wedde: Really, that’s the most important question of all because it’s probably the most difficult one to draw an edge to. I write in a lot of different registers: fiction, discursive stuff, essays, poetry, and I’ve written a little bit for the screen. And for all of them I need to have, somewhere in the back of my mind, a sense of the reason I’m doing this. The thing that distinguishes my writing of poetry from writing almost anything else is the reason I’m doing it. The direction it’s going to go in, or its destination: that is entirely irrelevant. It’s very much about having a sense of an opportunity—it’s not even a subject yet.

It may be something as derived as having read someone else. For example, I’ve just finished writing quite a long, book-length poem or series of poems, which came out of reading Theocritus, and Ovid gets in there as the counter-voice. I guess the impetus for that was really the idea of this being a planet in crisis; and the idea of those figures that we identify as lifeguards, if you like, who are posted around, noticing when people are in trouble.

Jen: Even if they’re a Cyclops?1

Ian: Yes, because that’s their work, even if they’ve only got one eye and they’re obsessed with a female being of some kind in the water; or even if they’re obsessed, in the way of Ovid’s Narcissus, with their own reflection. And so it was really just an idea: I wanted to find a way of writing about crisis, and then I came to this reading of the Idylls,2 which I can’t read in Greek, but in translation. There is a certain length to the lines. I didn’t really think of it until I’d already written a bit, and noticed I was using a rather circuitous way of coming around to shape. I wrote two or three of the sections in very long lines, and then it clicked that I’d been reading that translation of Theocritus and it was that line, that measure; and it was the measure of a thinking space, the measure of the dimension of the rhythm of thinking.

Jen: So the long line gave you the space to pattern that out?

Ian: Yes, it gave me a measure, a kind of mentor measure. Subsequently I looked at it and thought ‘no, that’s too clunky, and it’s heavy’. So I broke each line up into a couplet, and then it became another kind of shape.

But to answer your question, the initial impulse was as simple as the idea of a situation of crisis, and then a kind of character, a figure who could focus the narrative; and then the shape—the shape of thinking. When those things eventually fall together, when you’ve got them organised, then the writing starts. I usually spend ages messing around, trying this, trying that.

Jen: Are you trying out the work in terms of phrasing, or of form, or something like that? Is there image or sound, in the first instance?

Ian: No, it’s much more abstract. It’s just the big idea, and the shape of the thinking, and eventually those things start to work. I think that where the original impulse grows is in quite an abstract zone. It’s a very general idea, and a sense of pace and dimension. And then after that, various other things start to come together. Goodness knows where the actual images come from half the time. It’s just what happens in the writing. But certainly for me nothing really happens unless I’ve got a sense of what the big idea is, and a sense of the shape. If I look at the poems that I feel came off better than others, they’ve all had that aspect; they’ve all had that quality.

I think that there is a connection between the rhythm of thinking and the rhythm of walking, and the rhythm of then transcribing it to writing. Think of something like terza rima:3 I think of Dante walking, and writing in a language that he invented. That’s a political act. The measure of those lines is the walking one; and well, I hate to fall into the tum te tum kind of line, because it’s not like that, but I suspect there’s a connection between walking and thinking.4 And I think there’s probably, possibly, plausibly, an evolutionary connection between storytelling and walking, and the ways in which oral narratives use rhythm and mnemonic devices of various kinds. If you’re walking and telling a story to those around you, to begin with at least it relies on kennings of various kinds, repetitions of various kinds—like the wine dark sea5—or the measure of a line that helps you to remember it.

These are all old patterns of thinking and telling, and I think they carry back into where we are now: it’s something very old. The writing itself has to be in a space that is shaped by thinking, by how you think and how you visualise, and in what kind of rhythm you do that.

Jen: Maybe say a little more about the shape of thinking?

Ian: I wrote a book of sonnets when my first son was born6 and that was an unfashionable thing to be writing, but it gave me the shape of an argument. It was episodic, in that you could carry it on—because it was a form that ran on beautifully—and yet each of those poems could be an individual work. And each, because it ended with a couplet, could conclude. It worked in a way that most of what most of us were writing then—open form or free verse or whatever—didn’t, because they didn’t have a sort of thinking structure, and that was what was needed, it seemed to me.

Jen: Does free verse lack a thinking structure, do you think? And is that a problem?

Ian: Oh, no, not at all. But there are some forms that seem to have evolved in order to do a particular job—to do more precise thinking. I think about that walking rhythm you find in Robert Frost, for example—he’s not a poet I like all that much but I love that sort of ambling, thoughtful, timed rhythm—or Wallace Stevens, when he’s writing that classic, almost perfect blank verse, which is so clear. It gives a shape to the thought. What it comes down to is wandering around with a sort of vague suspicion about what the poem is going to be about; and then spending a long time arriving at a shape, or a container; and then doing it. After that it’s about changing things around, thinking this is too slow and lugubrious; if we cut this, or if we make it into these couplets, then we can make the lines do a bit more work.

Jen: So the work starts with the big idea, and the abstraction; and then it comes into its shape and space and physical form. Do you do research as well at this stage? For instance, with your Theocritus cum crisis poetry, did you read environmental reports?

Ian: Well, I suppose in a sense that’s the parallel universe of the poem. But I would have been doing that anyway, because I’m involved with environmental work, so a lot of that was going through my head.

Jen: We can call that research: it’s a sort of active involvement, a finding out, or learning, that would precede the poem or precede the idea of the poem. Or perhaps it would generate the idea of the poem.

Ian: Yes: probably that would generate the idea of the poem. The concern of the poem, the kind of anxiety that the poem is going to kick off with, comes out of that.

Jen: There is a degree of suspicion applied to practice-led research in some circles; and with some reason, I think. I suspect some of the doubt is because the term ‘practice-led’ often signals a post hoc approach to research, or even a category error—because if you’re working creatively, why would you then go off and do conventional research; how does that sort of research contribute to the creative expression, to the narrative, or to the shape of the line, for instance? And after all, if we are thinking of the work of poetry, do we see it as being committed to creating knowledge, or is about creating image or space or idea?

Ian: I think it’s about thinking, as well as feeling and visualising But I guess that for me, the breakout moment when I read poetry that really interests me a lot is when I’m not just reading someone telling me a not necessarily particularly interesting story about their personal life (I’m sorry about that, but honestly …), but when I’m reading something where the thinking has involved working out where the self is in this, who is talking here, and how is this narrative address being put together. It must be more than just I’m unhappy because this or that happened or I’m happy because this or that happened. There has to be a sense that the research, in a specific sense, has really grappled with the occasion or the subject, beyond a simple subjective outpouring of some kind. I want to read something that shows me that the person who’s written the piece has actually had self-consciousness, and has thought about where they’re located in this.

Also in terms of research: if you’re a poet you’re very likely to be reading poetry as well—some more, some less. I read, for example, the recent very beautiful translations John Ashbery’s done of Rimbaud’s Illuminations7—they’re fabulous, and I’m kind of bewildered by whether or not they’re very literal, or exactly why they work so well. But the really fascinating thing that you come away with from reading a poet like Rimbaud is the amazing extent to which he is never just the present voice in the poem. He’s the orphans, the little children in Les Etrennes des orphelinsThe Orphans’ New Year Gifts; he’s the drunken boat—but he’s never just that; he’s the seven-year-old poet written by the 17-year-old poet.8

Jen: So it’s a real slipperiness of being and location?

Ian: Always. And all the amazing tension and energy in the poems comes not just from the subject matter or from the beautiful images or from the weirdness: it comes from that stretch between the person writing and the carrier of the voice in the poem. And there’s a third party often: so the 17-year-old is writing the drunken boat, who is telling the story (the boat itself tells the story) and then at the end says ‘Do I dream of European waters’; and then the narrative returns to a little boy, lonely, playing in the yard, in Charleville, with a toy boat.9 That is fabulous, and it’s so different from the straight-line let me unpack my sad story for you. The tension in it is what makes it a fabulous piece of writing. And it happens over and over and over again, to the point of being a manifesto: je est un autre, as he wrote in a letter to Izambard.10He seems to throw that whole idea away in A Season in Hell, and then it seems to resolve when he comes to the Illuminations; and then he stops.

Jen: I guess by then he had said what he had to say; he’d found his way to the end.

Ian: Yes, he got there. That to me is so much more interesting than a compulsion to talk about yourself.

Jen: And that makes me think about John Berryman’s ‘The Ball Poem’:11 the poetic persona is mostly the adult, observing and commenting on the boy’s situation, noting that he needs to learn ‘the epistemology of loss’. But it is also the boy himself, fixed by ‘an ultimate shaking grief’; and it is also the ball, that ‘will explore the deep and dark floor of the harbour’. I think, like Rimbaud, he locates himself variously. And in doing this he is finding a way not simply to observe and describe, but also to express ideas, and to think out loud.

But can we go on to composition, and talk about the way in which you write once you’ve had your big idea and it has taken on its shape and its rhythm. Do you find you write rapidly or slowly at this point, when you’re actually putting down the words on the screen or on a page?

Ian: It depends. I spend a lot of time not writing much down at all. But often if something’s beginning to get under way, I go for a walk and take a notepad; I let the idea work its way, then sometimes write a few lines or a word, and carry it and go home and write. I used never to use a computer, but now I write straight onto the computer; and I don’t keep drafts, I just keep changing as I go.

Jen: That must annoy the archivists: they’d want to see the working notes. But I suppose you can give them your notebooks and see if in a hundred years anyone can make sense of those.

Ian: Yeah, one month, one entry, one word: it’s not terribly useful.

Jen: It could make you a fascinating figure in the future: this really arcane character. [laughter]

Ian: Yes, so that’s one way. I really love it when something quite substantial is under way and I’m walking around and going into it and never quite knowing what’s going to happen, but having that large shape or space to work in. Other times it’s just a question of having fun: of sitting down to play, seeing what happens. And if something happens fine, if it doesn’t, well …

Jen: The walking you do makes me think of the labyrinth: because Homer describes the labyrinth as a beautiful open dance floor and a place for patterns and movements across the floor, but Ovid’s labyrinth is terror in dark corridors.12 I wonder if there’s a bit of each of those in the making of a poem.

Ian: I think so, yes. Again, back to that idea of the self not being the presence that blocks the view, being just a sense of a person or presence over here; what you’re doing as a reader is entering a place of tensions of various kinds. I think in writing too when you talk about ‘getting structure’ or ‘getting composition’, it’s got to do with figuring out who’s leading, who’s following, and how this particular motion is going to be articulated. So much of that has to do with how you end a line, how you move the words around on a page, how the thing not only looks but how it plays. So it is very much a kind of composition—almost like musical composition.

Jen: That could also be called editing. I’ve talked to a number of poets about this, and some of them say that, when they compose, they see themselves as being in a creative mind: they just put it all down. And then later they come back to it as the editor, and they move into that state of ‘intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic’,13 and start critically attacking the draft. But other poets have told me they see no difference between composition and editing—that it’s all one action.

Ian: I think it’s all one. I mean you do have to be critical: you have to be alert to what you’ve done and have a kind of disenchanted time when you look at the work and say, this is crap. If you can’t do that, then you’ll end up with crap in a book. You may well anyway, so there’s no guarantees … But yes, I think the editing time is a time of being on your toes and looking hard at what you’ve done and being prepared to go oh that’s awful, what were you thinking? But it is also a time of play and enjoyment.

I’ve been reading 290 entries by New Zealand high school poets for the National High School Poetry Competition. And I was reading away and of course mostly turning the page and thinking it’s great, but the writers are anywhere between 13 and 19 years old—it’s a pretty wild time in your life—and I can see all the usual things going on here, kind of wonderful and touching. Then I came across a poem that just had a little line. What it was describing, or the image it was throwing out, went something like this: what would wet feet paint on the concrete. And in a sense it was Pound’s ‘In a station of the Metro’, being transcribed to a netball court outside a high school.14 It was kind of lovely, whether or not they knew about Pound and about:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.

Probably not, but I looked at it and I thought fabulous, it’s lovely. But then the question that would come to mind, if it was something that I’d written myself, would be: well, what else are they going to paint? It’s one of those obvious things to say that, in the end, you would throw away. It’s kind of wonderful; but then, really, sorry, good on you kid but I mean, ‘wet feet’, sorry, what are we going to see here?

Jen: I’ve judged a couple of competitions of school children, at primary and secondary level, and I’ve been astounded by the quality of language some of them come up with—some of the kids who are 15 or 16 write poems that I wish I’d written.

Ian: Some of them are really lovely to read. But they often don’t move the next step. It’s that editing question again; you might go oh, that reads well and it’s kind of shapely, but oh, no sorry. In the end it doesn’t push through.

Jen: I’d like to ask about your phrase ‘ordinary speech’; it appears quite a lot, particularly in Three Regrets and a Hymn to Beauty, and I’m very taken with that because of course what we use all the time is just words. John Berger has a lovely line about how we use the same material to build a company report as we do to write a poem.15 So words are ordinary; but you’re taking ordinary speech and making it, as you say in one line, extraordinary.16

Ian: I think part of the challenge there is that the word ordinary is so awful. I mean, how dare we call it ordinary. It’s like saying the ordinary man or woman, and they’re not. So I’m tearing that phrase open and asking, well, what is it that we’re talking about? But at the same time there’s a way of writing—put mini quotation marks around this—what we usually refer to as ‘ordinary speech’. There’s a way of writing using that kind of received plain language; and if you’ve got that, if you’re able to do that, and don’t overcook it, then you give yourself the opportunity to do really surprising things within it. Whereas if you’re constantly moving to the very minimal or moving to the overcooked—to either extreme—you don’t actually give yourself room to surprise, or to disrupt, the language. It’s too over-crafted and too precious; and if it’s too precious at the over-anesthetised minimal end, or if it’s too over-decorated at the other end, you don’t have any room to move. Really it seems to me that what I like is a certain kind of equanimity in the language, a plainness, that allows you to throw in a surprise.

Jen: I wonder, listening to you now, whether it might be that, in those two extremes you describe—the extremely controlled minimalist approach and the extremely florid—both rely an awful lot on words themselves; and perhaps what you’re doing in the middle, in that plainness and equanimity, is that words instead become vessels for thought.

Ian: Yes, I think that’s true; but it’s also true that the absurd end of language, the non-naturalistic, is wonderful too. That’s why we go to the opera: to hear these completely quite ludicrous or particularly stupid lines. We went to the opera on the harbour in Sydney a month or two ago, and it was outrageous but great good fun. There are poets I admire who pinch it up so tight and careful, and it’s extraordinary for that reason. But really, you read it with a different kind of mind and with a different sensibility. It’s very concentrated, and you have to read a lot of the legitimising discourse around it, you have to read the commentaries and not just the object itself. I think for me the attraction of working with a ‘bottom line’ of language is that it seems to me to connect better with a reader. I don’t try to imagine the reader, but there is a sense that I’m actually addressing someone.

Jen: So for you the comparison of say your Beauty poem and the Good Business poems,17 they seem to be directed to very different sets of tastes and knowledges. Is there anything conscious in that with you, or is it just you want to write this poem?

Ian: No, it goes just the way it is going to go. This is it, this is what you’re thinking; and sometimes there’s a satirical impulse which often of course does have a very particular target. You don’t necessarily then spell it out but in the beginning, writing it, it comes out in an irritation or anger or some other unworthy emotion. And you know you’ve actually got someone in mind, or a type in mind. I got into a lot of trouble in a quiet way for writing a poem called ‘Epistle to a Virtuous Lieutenant’, which is in the book called The Commonplace Odes.18 I was working at Te Papa19 at the time, and a lot of people assumed that they’d identified a particular individual.20 It actually wasn’t a particular individual, but there was a lot of bad feeling because it was identified as being a particular individual because of a phrase that he himself did utter quite often—which is, I absolutely agree. It was that situation of the virtuous lieutenant who will absolutely agree with a senior officer. It wasn’t that person I was writing about; it was a close friend of mine, and he wasn’t the individual who was identified. But it was about a type; satire usually goes to a type of behaviour.

Jen: Satire often gets poets into trouble, doesn’t it?21 Because I suppose it does invite people to make meaning of it and make a context for it, in that they assume it can’t be an idea: you must be writing about a particular person.

Ian: Yes, absolutely. It was awful but I got over it, and eventually it didn’t matter anymore.

So anyway, back to ordinary speech. The other thing that interests me a lot is the way in which poetry functions in cultures and societies where it matters, in ways that it doesn’t in the environment where we work. I’m thinking, among others, of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.22 He has the gift of both a hieratic language and a vernacular, that can be played with and against each other. So Darwish can write using the references of classical Arabic poetry, which resonate at all kinds of levels in society—it’s not any longer the privileged knowledge of a particular class—and then can use a vernacular language, almost a not-written-down language, to punctuate the hieratic language.23 Again it’s about that tension inside the writing, what we call the voice I guess, which is an historical sound as well as a sound in the present. It’s the sound of everything that’s already been written or said. How he produces that is something that is very difficult to do in English.

To some extent I think John Ashbery does this in an offhand way by having a certain easy tone. It’s hard to put your finger on, but it’s almost as though he has the background sound of a great weight, a density of writing, and you feel this foundation of what appears quite easy. But a poem that sustains line by line for over 500 lines, like ‘Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror’,24 and that makes great sense and isn’t hard, it’s very readable—I think the ordinary speech thing works beautifully there because it’s kind of effortless, and it is a bit like stepping into a conversation. But at the same time you feel the presence of a lot of other talking and writing. There isn’t that sense of simply a personal voice, being a testamentary voice; it’s more thought through than that.

Jen: In this idea of the ordinary voice, or in the juxtaposition of the hieratic and the vernacular, do you think there is something of the kind that TS Eliot used in some of his poems? I’m thinking of where he inserts a sort of vulgar speech, like his HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME.25 It always feels a bit snooty, to me, but …

Ian: Yes, I think it is; it’s not effortless in the same way; he’s introducing those jarring notes. In the same way Eliot kind of appropriated Dante, for example, to ‘the mind of Europe’—to a higher band of poetry. But Dante was a vernacular poet. He didn’t write in Latin, which was extraordinary in those times; he wrote in the language of the spoken word at that time: it wasn’t a written language. Because of Dante’s great substance, Eliot moved him up into the hieratic zone, but he didn’t belong there. And so really I think his introduction of the sound of life going in the street, the music hall, the vulgar entertainment, was snobby.

Jen: Earlier you mentioned a certain anger, or maybe a driving satire: to what extent do you feel that you either draw on or allow to play out in your poetry the sensory, the affectual, the emotional?

Ian: I find it very difficult to separate ideas from things, but that’s really where it’s at. I’d say the impetus to write about my son Carlos when he was little was to do with an emotional idea—that the unremarkable things in the world matter; they matter a huge amount. It’s those little scraps and untidy things and unresolved things—the weed stalk, not the large ideas or the grand structures, but the insignificant, the small. These are hugely important and valuable, and our lives are made of those things and, from time to time, some large architecture emerges from it; it starts there. I guess that’s where that title The Commonplace Odes comes from as well, and it’s where ‘A Hymn to Beauty’ is an intervention: it’s like please, enough moral philosophy! Again, it’s about that tension between the grandiose and why we need it; and the small, the commonplace, the disregarded, and how they work.

Jen: It seems to me like a title for your work. I was at a poetry seminar some years ago and one of the speakers said that all poets can pretty much put their whole life’s work into one sentence. So, for example, Mary Oliver looks at a flower and sees God; and that speaker said about himself, ‘I go swimming and get scared’. The point was that all the things in the world matter.

Ian: I think often for me the writing is about paying attention; it’s not necessarily about grasping for some higher thought.

Jen: There seems to be some analogy with painting in some ways; because isn’t painting more about paying attention than about grasping for higher thought or higher truth? It’s about ways of seeing.

Ian: I think my experience of art has certainly run a very close parallel to writing. When I was still at high school I quite liked art but, I have to be honest, it wasn’t my form. There was a moment where I was at school in England when I was pretty obsessed with the possibility that I was going to be an artist, but it was a fantasy really. I’d saved up and bought a bunch of decent art supplies—paints, brushes—and there was a kid in the same art class as me who really was good but he was also nuts. I came into the art room one day and found that he’d taken a razor blade and cut the tops off all my brushes, slashed all the tubes of paint, and hurled a whole lot of stuff out the window. He’d just thrown a hissy; and at that point I thought oh, fine, fair enough. It was kind of like he’s right: it wasn’t working anyway.

Jen: I just think about the cost! You can fail so much more cheaply in writing than in painting. [laughter]

Ian: But I think the connection between the two is important for me. They’ve always been connected; I think visualising and writing have always been inseparable.

Jen: And your need to walk is there too: painting is not a static art; you’ve got to be moving all the time.

Ian: Yes, it’s very much about that, and about physical rhythm.

Jen: I’ve talked to a lot of artists on a previous project I was doing, and some of them described the need to make big gross movements if they’re stuck on something; so they go into a sort of fugal state, and when they come through they’ve worked out what the problem was. But of course they’re moving anyway, painters move, and sculptors are moving all the time. I think writers too do have to walk, and then the body tells you where you’re supposed to be and what you’re supposed to be doing. I’m very interested in how our bodies are our expression.

Ian: I watch my wife, Donna, who’s a screenwriter. We share a big office space at home, and I see her going like this [gestures], and she’s looking at the location of a speaking character in a scene; and you see the actual choreography of that utterance.

Jen: Years ago, one of my jobs was production manager for a little pro-am company, and we put on a lot of new plays written by young and emerging playwrights. They’d always come in when the play was being rehearsed, and often they’d listen to lines and say it’s not quite right, and the actor would say I can’t say that, nobody can say that, it looks fine on the page

Ian: But you can’t say it … [laughter]

Jen: ... and they’d have to workshop how you actually get that expression, that idea, out in a way that can be said in, if you like, ordinary speech.

Can we talk about the end product: are you trying to tell people something; are you trying to convey something to people, or do you just want to satisfy yourself—to say this is done, I like that now it’s finished?

Ian: Well, I think it’s on a continuum from vanity to something else. It’s nice to have written something that people enjoy, that’s simply gratifying, and you never rule it out. Part of the pleasure of writing is having someone like it, so that’s obviously part of the impulse. And in association with that I do like writing occasional poems for someone’s birthday. It’s also an opportunity just to have fun with something like a ballad form where you can write something entertaining for someone on their anniversary or whatever, and I think that’s one of the really simple pleasures of it.

But at the other end: in a way it’s not about the object, or the text as an object. It’s about producing a situation or a circumstance that people can enter; and where I’ve no idea what’s going to happen. That’s what I enjoy reading, it’s the situation I enjoy going into as a reader. I’m not interested in being told how to read. At the moment I get the sense that I’m being over-instructed, that I’m being kind of borne down on by the writer, I’m finished with it, and I don’t want to do it. So I think, for me, the end product is ideally—leaving aside the pleasures of having something applauded and enjoyed—just the sense that you’ve added an opportunity.

Jen: Joan Didion wrote an essay titled ‘Why I Write’, where of course she’s picking up on Orwell. In that, she writes about the sound of the title: I, I, I. She said she wants people to ‘see it my way’.26 I don’t find her writing particularly didactic, so I guess she’s really profoundly expressing the idea that she wants to make an effect, and persuade people.

Ian: I don’t like the I. If I use it, it’s an I in character. Well of course, you have to be honest, sometimes the I is me, but by and large the I that I would write in poetry is not me; it’s over here somewhere. I think that it’s a piece of the work; it’s either a posture you adopt or it’s more or less unconscious, because you simply are out of yourself when you write. I think it’s more often the latter.

Jen: So once you’re actually in that writing process it’s not ‘Ian’, it’s actually ‘voice’, it’s idea, it’s words.

Ian: Yes, it’s something else. And I think the other piece of the answer is that I never like what I’ve done when I’ve finished it. When it’s done, I want to move on. Sometimes I come back and look and think oh, that was interesting, but I’m usually really, really over it around the time it gets into book form. And the kind of things that look like faults or laziness which, at the time, in my heart, I knew, but decided it’s better just to move on and not try and endlessly improve. There’s a point where you go, this is it, this comes into the world now

Jen: As the ‘good enough’ piece.

Ian: Good enough, yes, good old Winnicott, ‘good enough’.27 Good enough is better than too good, ninety per cent of the time. There’s a contingency about it, which is what I like to read as well. I like reading things that don’t have their shirts tucked in. [laughter] If they’re too spruce, too polished, you can’t actually penetrate them, you can’t enter them at all.

Jen: But that means that when it’s finished, and you look at it, you see the things that you didn’t polish and finish …

Ian: Yes, and just as well. But it’s also a kind of a reaction, a post-hoc reaction, that says this is pretty messy.

Jen: So the tension between finishing and being satisfied, and wanting it perfect but knowing that perfection doesn’t work and disliking perfection, it’s just that impossible state …

Ian: It’s a no-win.

Jen: Maybe it means you have to keep working. So it’s a self-motivating system that we operate on.

Ian: Yes, it is. And I think that’s why it’s interesting to try something different; I don’t like particularly falling into a mode or pattern.

Jen: Your works seems to me to take very different voices, forms, shapes.

Ian: Yes, I like to try something else out.

Jen: So there isn’t a ‘Wedde poem’.

Ian: Oh, there may be but I probably haven’t written it yet. [laughter]

Jen: I sent you an Auden quote, from an essay where Auden writes:

When we genuinely speak, we do not have the words ready to do our bidding; we have to find them, and we do not know exactly what we are going to say until we have said it.28

He’s describing a spoken rather than a written word, and about the actual sound of the words, something that implies the embodiment of language. Later on he writes:

In so far as one can speak of poetry as conveying knowledge, it is the kind of knowledge implied by the biblical phrase—Then Adam knew Eve his wife—knowing is inseparable from being known.

Do you find any point of connection with that?

Ian: Yes I do; leaving aside the biblical reference. I think, absolutely, that knowledge has nothing to do with facts and has nothing to do with empirical theses. They are just evidence of work; but knowledge is not about facts—even if we could be confident that we knew what those were. Knowledge is about a comprehensive—I’d even use the word holistic—taking in of how things are known, what things are known, who knows them, how do I know them, what is my conversation about knowing them, how does that constitute a critique of knowing. It goes on and on. I don’t think that the writing of poetry necessarily ticks all those boxes all the time but if you think of the writing of poetry as a mental exercise as well as physical exercise, as the exercising of thought in writing—knowledge comes from that. It may or may not translate into something that can be paraphrased as a transmittable item or object; but I think knowledge is in the process.

Jen: Is it the difference between a fact and a process—if we can say there is such a thing as a fact, which we may have some doubts about—that a fact is an object, and knowledge is a process?

Ian: Yes, knowledge is a process. I mean, you can say George Bush was the—whatever he was, the 41st president, or whatever—of the USA. Fine, but I know nothing as a result of knowing that. But if I take that fragment and then assemble around it a bunch of other fragments, and critical thinking, and the sounds of voices, and my own processing of that, then knowledge is what emerges at various parts, in various parts, and in various places in that whole process. It’s not a conclusive thing; it’s something that is always completely inconclusive. I suppose the endless discussion at the philosophical margin about various kinds of epistemologies is as much about how we know as what we know, and about if it’s going to be worth thinking about. Again, to go back to that example of Rimbaud: the knowledge that is in that work comes from me engaging with that positioning process in the narrative. It’s not about the factual details, it’s not the word by word; it’s the articulation of the thinking. I think knowledge is to do with that, not with result.

Jen: Earlier I mentioned the Ovid, and I wondered if you could say something about why you chose to write about the Cyclops, why you thought about Narcissus, and how you’re using those myths and some Maori legends you bring in too. Why do you choose mythology: is it to provide voice, shape, character, is it diction, is it the rhythms?

Ian: Well I think of the poor old Cyclops—again, in ordinary speech, we have a vernacular phrase ‘to be one-eyed’, and to me the kind of ironic humorous attraction of some of those stories is that they shoot back very rapidly to a kind of joke telling. And the story of Narcissus and Echo: you see it every day when you get on a bus, that tragedy is being enacted. You see Echo being unable to do any more than repeat what the vain young man is saying; and you probably see it in the gender switched way as well, happening the other way around, though it’s more often the first way. But I think it’s just having fun, I mean it’s humorous, a kind of joke that Narcissus would be the lifeguard on the edge of a resort swimming pool …

Jen: Yes, how does he keep his eyes off himself?

Ian: He’s really just looking at his forearm …

Jen: While the swimmers are calling out, we’re not waving, we’re drowning. [laughter]

Ian: And there is poor old one-eyed Cyclops the lifeguard on the stormy coast, peering into the water just in case she’s there. But of course meanwhile out there, there’s someone else going under.

Jen: Yes. It’s like that ship that had something else to do, and sails calmly on while the boy falls in the water.29

Ian: Yes. With the little Latin that I have, I’ve always enjoyed going back and doing the best I can with, say, Horace. It’s just terrific to read something that has an amazingly cautious tone that is edged with effrontery. He is risking his life, saying something that in a micro-measure would get him killed, and having the wit to say in public things that could be read this way, or could be read that way. So the official response is: Okay, we’ll let you get away with it this time. It’s like being in a really fabulous conversation with someone who’s got a bit of an edge; you’re never quite sure if you should react or not. And then the situations he’s unpacking in the poems, especially in the Odes,30 are so contemporary.

Jen: Yes. It is a bit mortifying to see how much the same we are across the millennia. I think of Sappho’s work: a lot of the fragments we have could have been written today. They’ve the same anxiety, the same interests, the same thoughts.

Ian: Yes, it’s great to go back to those ones who had that edge, something that does come through.

Jen: Especially if you know their context: know what’s happening in that political environment or social environment and what’s motivating some of the shape of the work. So then you do get what you call a brilliant conversation: a reader can fall into that.

Ian: Maybe that’s what knowledge is: brilliant conversation. And being able to make mistakes—because mistakes are interesting; the more mistakes you make, the better.


End notes

  • 1. The title poem of Wedde’s poet laureate collection, The Lifeguard: Poems 2008-2013 (Auckland University Press), brings together Polyphemus the Cyclops, and Narcissus.
  • 2. The Idylls of Theocritus is a collection of 30 poems (only some of which are confidently attributed to Theocritus). These 3rd century BCE poems include stories of some well-known characters from the ancient world, including Heracles, Polyphemus the Cyclops, and Helen of Troy. Identified as the founder of the bucolic (or pastoral) style of poetry, Theocritus’ writing is so committed to story that he has also been identified as the originator of fiction (see Mark Payne 2007 Theocritus and the Invention of Fiction, Cambridge University Press).
  • 3. Terza rima is a form of poetry presented in interlinked tercets: 3-line units or stanzas, organised in hendecasyllables (the main metrical form in Italian poetry, a line usually containing 11 syllables, and with stresses on the 6th and 10th syllables). The rhyming pattern is ABA / BCB / CDC (etc); and the poem ends with a single line or a couplet. In this case, the end lines would be CDC-D, or CDC-DD.
  • 4. This is a ‘suspicion’ shared by many philosophers, the better-known expressions of which include Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782; Book 9), and Henry David Thoreau’s Walking (1862). More recently, Rebecca Solnit has added to this literature with her Wanderlust: a History of Walking (2000).
  • 5. This phrase first appears in Homer’s Iliad, in Book 1 (as translated by AT Murray), and reappears in Books 2, 5, 7 and 23, and again several times in Homer’s Odyssey.
  • 6. Earthly: Sonnets for Carlos (Akaroa: Amphedesma Press, 1975).
  • 7. Rimbaud, Arthur 2011 (1886) Illuminations (trans. John Ashbery), Manchester: Carcanet Press.
  • 8. Arthur Rimbaud wrote the long (100-line) poem ‘The Drunken Boat’ in 1871, in a series of Alexandrine [12-syllable line] quatrains. Les Poètes de sept ans—Seven-year-old Poets was also written in 1871.
  • 9. The quatrain, in Martin Sorrell’s translation, reads: If I want Europe, it’s a dark cold pond Where a small child plunged in sadness crouches One fragrant evening at dusk, and launches A boat, frail as a butterfly in May. Arthur Rimbaud 2001 Collected Poems (trans. Martin Sorrell), Oxford: Oxford UP, 125-34
  • 10. ‘Je est un autre’: ‘“I” is someone else’ (Rimbaud 2005: 370). Georges Izambard was Rimbaud’s teacher and mentor while he was at college in his hometown of Charleville. Rimbaud wrote several letters to Izambard about his poetic aspirations and attitudes; see Arthur Rimbaud 2005 Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters, a Bilingual Edition (trans. Wallace Fowlie), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • 11. In Berryman, John 1989 Collected Poems 1937-1971, Toronto: Collins Publishers, 11
  • 12. In Homer’s account, it is ‘A labyrinth for the dance, such as of old / In Crete’s broad island Daedalus composed / for bright-hair’d Ariadne’ (The Iliad Book xviii, trans William Cowper, London: Baldwin and Cradock, 1837, lines 735-37). In Ovid’s account, it is a ‘dark enclosure’, so convoluted ‘that scarce the workman all its turns could trace; / And Daedalus was puzzled how to find / The secret ways of what himself design’d’ (Ovid The Metamorphoses, translated by Samuel Croxall; New York: Harper and Brothers, 1844, Book VIII).
  • 13. This phrase is HG Wells’, and is his description of the aliens in The war of the worlds (1898), London: William Heinemann, 1
  • 14. See Pound, Ezra 1921 [1913] ‘In a Station of the Metro’, in Louis Untermeyer, (ed) Modern American Poetry, Harcourt, Brace and Co: London, 305
  • 15. Berger, John 1984 And our faces, my heart, brief as photos, London: Writers and Readers: ‘That a poem may use the same words as a Company Report means no more than the fact that a lighthouse and a prison cell may be built with stones from the same quarry, joined with the same mortar’, 21-22
  • 16. See ‘The bottle of oil I was late sending John’, in Ian Wedde 2005 Three regrets and a hymn to beauty, Auckland University Press: ‘Ordinary speech / Does not know it is ordinary / Until we make it say extraordinary things’.
  • 17. See Wedde, Ian: 2006 Three regrets and a hymn to beauty: new poems; and 2009 Good business: New poems, 2005-2008; both published by Auckland University Press.
  • 18. Wedde, Ian 2002, The Commonplace Odes, Auckland: Auckland University Press
  • 19. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, in Wellington, where Ian Wedde was head of art and visual culture from 1994 to 2004.
  • 20. This is alluded to in a review published in the New Zealand Listener, 14 April 2001, where reviewer writes, ‘one wonders who he is addressing in “Epistle to a Virtuous Lieutenant”’. Rabbitt, Lindsay, 2001, ‘Cold water sailor’, Listener 178.3179; 14 April: 58-60
  • 21. Perhaps most famously in the cases of Ovid and Juvenal, each of whom was exiled—to Tomis, for Ovid; and to Egypt, for Juvenal (though the story of Juvenal’s exile may be apocrypal). The reasons for the exile of each poet are uncertain, but extant literature suggests that poems mocking powerful individuals or practices were the cause.
  • 22. See the book of translations Ian Wedde completed with Fawwaz Tuqan: Selected Poems—Mahmoud Darwish, introduced and translated by Ian Wedde and Fawwaz Tuqan (Cheadle: Carcanet Press, 1973)
  • 23. See, for example, his ‘In Jerusalem’ (2005, trans. Fady Joudah, The Kenyon Review 27.3: 2-3), which combines lines that shift tone and tenor: who am I? I am no I in ascension’s presence. But I think to myself: Alone, the prophet Mohammad spoke classical Arabic. “And then what?” Then what? A woman soldier shouted: Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
  • 24. See Ashbery, John 1975 Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror: Poems, New York: Penguin
  • 25. From The Wasteland (1922), ‘II. A Game of Chess’. Eliot introduces what is clearly a working class speaker, chattering at closing time in a pub; and the section ends with a very vernacular ‘Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight. / Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight’,139-172
  • 26. ‘In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act.’ From Joan Didion 1976 ‘Why I write’, in GH Muller with AF Crooks (eds), 1994 Major modern essayists (2nd ed), 224-28, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 224
  • 27. Paediatrician and psychologist Donald Winnicott famously wrote about the ‘good enough mother’ in his work on parenting: 1971 Playing and reality, London: Routledge. This is the mother who is able to adapt herself to the infant’s changing needs, and who ‘gives the infant the illusion that there is an external reality that corresponds to the infant’s own capacity to create’, 12. This has been appropriated widely as a heuristic for transitional phenomena, and to understand the difference between art as process and art as a set of established ideas. See, e.g., Annette Kuhn (ed.) 2013 Little madnesses: Winnicott, transitional phenomena and cultural experience, London: IB Tauris; Adam Phillips 1988 Winnicott, London: Penguin.
  • 28. In Secondary Worlds: The TS Eliot Memorial Lectures, London: Faber and Faber, 1967, 105
  • 29. Auden, WH 1991 ‘Musée des beaux arts’, in Collected poems (ed. Edward Mendelson), New York: Random House, 179 the expensive delicate ship that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on
  • 30. Horace wrote his Odes from 23-13BCE, as a Roman version of the Greek lyric; they have been widely translated and published over the centuries. See, e.g., the 2004 translation by Niall Rudd, Harvard: Loeb Classics.