Last night, I read Philip Larkin’s interview in The Paris Review Interviews, Volume 2 (Picador, 2007). Larkin wasn’t the most amenable interviewee (he was downright cranky at times), but his answers make for interesting reading.
The interviewer, Robert Phillips, said: “Davison also sees your favourite subjects as failure and weakness”, referring to Peter Davison, an American “poet-critic”.
“I think a poet should be judged by what he does with his subjects, not by what his subjects are. Otherwise you’re getting near the totalitarian attitude of wanting poems about steel production figures rather than “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” Poetry isn’t a kind of paint spray you use to cover selected objects with. A good poem about failure is a success.”
Similarly, I’ve read reviews in which poets are berated for being “too personal”, for writing about menstruation, menopause, infertility or masturbation. These topics make some people uncomfortable, but surely nothing should be taboo. What is poetry, if not personal? Who are the final arbiters of what is and isn’t acceptable? It’s subjective, a matter of personal taste. A poem should be judged on merit, on whether it is well written, not on its subject matter. How boring it would be if all poetry toed the line. Vive la différence.
I know an author who, catching sight of one of those “why not be a writer?” advertisements, made a scornful noise and then said, “for the following reasons . . .”, rattling off an impressively long list of harrowing psychological and financial pitfalls. The writers interviewed here are or were at the top of their game, or the top of the pile, but even they can express discomfort or unhappiness with their chosen profession. Writing fiction “involves stuff that isn’t agreeable”, says Norman Mailer; “It seems as if I was fated to write,” says Jean Rhys, “which is horrible”. (Joyce Carol Oates does enjoy writing, which is just as well, considering how much of it she does.)
Read Nicholas Lezard’s review of The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 3here.