Sign up to the newsletter

Interview with poet George Szirtes

George Szirtes is a poet and translator. He has published several books and won various prizes including The Faber Memorial and the TS Eliot prizes. 

Why are you a poet?

It’s hard to say why.

I began writing poetry quite against expectations at school when I was in the sixth form. I was shown a poem by a friend that I thought was bad. Not that I knew anything ‘about’ poetry, I just knew in my bones that poetry had to be about truth in some way, and that the poem I was shown was not.

In a few seconds I went from someone with no clear aim in life to someone who wanted to be a poet. I still think truth, that very complicated notion, is at the heart of it. Not that I knew why or how at the time.

The answer I would give now is that I am a poet because I love and distrust language; because I am less interested in narrative than a fiction writer or novelist has to be; because I am devoted to what the Irish giant Finn MacCool referred to as ‘the music of what happens’, that poetry is ‘being close to the music of what happens’.

Which poets do you admire?

My admirations are many and wide.

I admire Eliot and Auden and MacNeice and Mahon and Brodsky (in other people’s translation) most among the moderns; but there are other marvellous poets, such as Marilyn Hacker and Elizabeth Bishop.

These are just the English language ones: they are all in their ways singers of the real, which is to say the clutter and passion of ordinary life are important to them – but they are also formally virtuosic and capable of blowing the wind of imagination through the world.

There are many others: Don Paterson, Alice Oswald, the late Michael Donaghy, Ian Duhig are all younger than me.

American favourites include Wallace Stevens, John Crowe Ransom, Theodore Roethke, Anthony Hecht. And I haven’t looked back to previous centuries where apart from obvious ones such as Shakespeare, Donne, Keats etc, I love George Herbert, John Clare, Alexander Pope and the comic work of Byron. But this list could go on forever and I haven’t mentioned the foreign poets, including the Hungarians.

What inspires you?

The fragility, music and toughness of things. History with its monsters and losses, the visual arts with their sensory pleading and overload. Very simple things: rain, sunlight on the pavement, human love, the existence of animals, the whole notion of who we are and, more importantly, what we are and what the world is.

The music of what happens, in other words, and I’d expect most poets to say the same.

When and where do you write?

When I began in 1967 there were no computers but I had notebooks and a typewriter, a little manual one and later a big grey thing that sat on my desk and went ‘ching’ when the carriage reached the end and you had to pull at the lever to get it to return. Now I have a laptop and I try to get to it fairly quickly when something stirs. That is not difficult since I spend five days or so of the week at my desk with the laptop directly in front of me for about 12 hours each time with a few breaks.

Often I am translating fiction or poetry from the Hungarian. Like many Hungarians, or so it seems, I am a productive writer. It may come of being born in a small country with a language unlike anyone else’s so we have to try that much harder to make language work and to learn to love our work. I only write in English of course.

When I had a full-time job – I taught art and art history in schools for 15 years – I would set the alarm for 5am and spend a couple of hours reading or writing or redrafting or simply dreaming, it didn’t matter which, the important thing is that it was sacred time not to be used for anything else. No-one else in the house was up then. I was not closeting myself away. It was fresh and sent me to work with a clean conscience.

I don’t have a full-time job now, and haven’t had one for 20 years, so there is less structure, with the exception of deadlines. Leisure time is not in itself productive though. By some strange – or perhaps not at all strange – quirk of fate I have written most and best when I’ve been under some kind of pressure to do something else. It’s as if writing has to take me a little by surprise and then not let go of me. The computer suits me because I think and feel fast and when writing by hand my thoughts run ahead of my fingers and my drafts are practically illegible even to myself.

What process do you go through to write a poem?

Writing is intense concentration combined with a relaxed detachment. It’s like skating or surfing. Or dancing on a tightrope. Or perhaps it is like being a bird and riding thermals. It is hard to talk without employing metaphors.

Let me go on then. You can sometimes feel a poem warming under the skin. Sometimes – and I welcome this – a poem is expected of you. Making the poem part of your field of expectation is vital, especially for a poet starting out.

I write fast hoping to catch the right thermals, to make the right moves, setting myself formal problems that constantly threaten to divert me, that make a game of my solemnity, my earnestness. That game playing element is vital to all those actions that serve as metaphors above. I correct quickly, I get as far as I can, then I revise. I read the poem aloud to Clarissa, my artist wife, who has a good ear. But when I read to her it is as if I’m hearing the poem afresh.

The notion of a listener is integral to the act. I often work in sequences, exploring a seam of feeling and imagery that is not exhausted by one poem. I feel slightly uneasy with a poem that opens and shuts like the proverbial box. I like the wind whistling through it a little, not constantly, not madly, but enough to feel that the poem is somehow out in the open. More metaphors. It’s what you get from poets unless it’s Philip Larkin, which for all his great virtues as a poet, I am not.

Describe the route to being first published…

It was long, circuitous, often frustrating, full of disappointments and despair but also, unknown to me at the time, littered with fortune. Poets – all creative people – need luck and I have had some in my time.

First I needed the luck to start at all, then the luck of having a partner who is herself an artist and who fully understands what I do, then the luck of finding poets willing to look at my work and to critically encourage me. I was lucky in having a cheap second-hand bookshop nearby.

My first publication was in the school magazine, then in an anthology edited by Martin Bell, who taught at the art college I attended, then in a small pamphlet published by a Yorkshire publisher. Jeff Nuttall was also at the art college and was also encouraging. I did nothing to attain all this, it simply happened. Then in London I had the luck of being handed over to Peter Porter who was, and continues to be, a remarkable, kind and wise man as well as a major poet.

My first published poem in the national press was in the TLS in 1973. It meant everything to me. Peter edited the poetry pages. Then he left and I continued publishing a poem a year in very good magazines such as Ambit, The Listener and Encounter, almost by blind chance, until in 1978 Faber picked me from a long list of younger poets for the fourth in their Poetry Introduction series. This was like a dream.

The first book appeared the year after that from Secker and Warburg and was joint-recipient of the Faber Prize. That was heaven. You can see and feel the luck, can’t you? It’s the months and years of despair in between you can’t see, but they did me no harm. Which was, I should add, also lucky. That was 13 years after I first began to write poems, by which time I had been married 10 years, had two children and was teaching in a school.

What advice would you give to an aspiring poet?

Read the best, read a lot, let poems get into your central nervous system. Be prepared to listen, as much to yourself as to others. Poetry is not straight self-expression, telling the world how you feel; it is a mode of feeling that is created by and sustained within language, so get to love words and the patterns they fall into.

Make life a little difficult for yourself as a poet. Set arbitrary problems. Sometimes – indeed most times – experience is best not stated or met direct. Experience ghosts through language so give it something interesting to ghost through. And listen, because your intention is not the poem; the poem is what is happening in the language in the same way as its subject is the music of what happens. The poem that does not surprise you will not surprise anyone else either. Robert Frost who said marvellous things about poetry said that.

When it comes to sending poems out to magazines, go for the big ones but don’t neglect the smaller ones. There is no easy hierarchy of achievement. All magazine editors have big piles of poems on their desks. Grow a tough skin. Do not be put off by rejection. If it matters to write then it really matters. Look for others whose opinion you respect and who are willing to read what you do (I have benefited enormously from this). Good literary friends are deep friends.

Don’t read only your contemporaries; don’t be simply taken by whatever happens to be the most talked about and praised things now. Let that go, let it settle into you. Read everything, past and present. Listen to how your long-dead predecessors can speak to you even now and delight you. It’s not about fame in the end, and certainly not about money. It is about the music of what happens and goes on happening just as it did in the past but to which, in order to remain close, you have to reinvent language in its freshness, which you can’t do of course because it is impossible. But when it’s as fresh as it can be others will smell that freshness too and it goes on forever. Or what seems like forever and it need not concern you if it doesn’t because you don’t go on forever either.

George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948 and came to England as a refugee when he was 8 years old. He was brought up in London, and his poems began to be published in the 1970s. His first book, The Slant Door, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1980. Szirtes now lives in Norfolk and teaches at the University of East Anglia. As well as writing poetry, he is a translator. His most recent book, Fortinbras at the Fishhouses, is a series of innovative poetry lectures delivered at the University of Newcastle.

Image Credit: photo by Caroline Forbes