Q & A with poet Andrew Taylor

Having written numerous books of poetry , taught around the world and won prizes for his work, one could say poet Andrew Taylor is very well established within the poetry community, both nationally and internationally.

The highly qualified academic and author will examine how the theme of exploration manifests in poetry at Castle Hill Library’s A Touch of Poetry, the second instalment in the series of poetry seminars.

Q: Describe your style of poetry.

A: That’s hard to answer. Most of my poems are short, and I try to be succinct. But I’ve also written a whole book length poem, Rome, and other long sequences too, such as Sandstone. But these have all been made up of short sections, and they don’t have any narrative structure. In a way you could say that my poems are meditative, or ruminative, just going where they lead me.

For me, rhythm is very important. I don’t mean traditional metre or form, though I’ve played with those too. By rhythm I mean a coherence and naturalness of cadence. I always read my poems aloud to myself when I’m writing them, and if I can’t make them sound natural, if the pauses or line breaks are in the wrong place or the words sound jumbled and awkward, then something’s wrong. I also love playing with the sounds of words. There’s a lot of rhyme in my poems, though not at the ends of lines, but internally, and (I hope) subtly, so that it’s hardly noticed but there all the same. And my poems are quiet rather than declaratory, rather like me.

Q: What sparked your love of poetry?

A: I don’t think anything sparked my love of poetry. A more pertinent question would be, why didn’t that love of poetry get extinguished as I got older?

In my experience pretty well every little child loves poetry. That goes for myself, my own children, and my grandchildren. Children love the sound of words, they love their rhythms and cadences, and they love repetition, repetition, repetition. Listening to a young child learn to speak, then learn to read, is one of the most wonderful experiences one can have. Not only are you witnessing the development of her mind and its reaching out to the world and its expanding grasp on it, you’re also watching the world itself take shape and colour in a child’s awareness of it. Every new word a child learns is an expansion of the child’s world. And just as she steals her brother’s blocks to build her own houses and castles, so she steals our words and then our grammar and syntax and all the paraphernalia of language to build her own world.

It occurs to me that I’ve just given a definition of poetry. Poetry, for me, is that building process. We all do it when we’re children, but for me the process didn’t stop. The medieval Scottish poet William Dunbar called poets Makars, that is people who make. I was fortunate in being able to keep making. Nobody in particular encouraged me to write, but nobody discouraged me or told me to grow up and grow out of it. As I got older I went beyond nursery rhymes, wonderful as they are, to ‘grown up’ poetry. It was like stepping on an escalator: once I got on I couldn’t get off.

Q: Which poets have inspired you?

A: Living in a country town before television, my parents were great readers, though not much of poetry. Our house was full of books, and I burrowed through them like the proverbial bookworm, and came across unexpected revelations such as Longfellow’s Hiawatha and The Wreck of the Hesperus, and Robert Southey’s The Inchcape Rock, which I recited inaudibly and from memory at a primary school Parents’ Day. Stirring stuff that soon gave way to Wordsworth, who remains one of my favourite poets even today. Later at school it was Judith Wright who stands out, Slessor, AD Hope, Milton and Catullus. (I studied Latin, and Catullus was wonderful. I even tried writing poetry in Latin.)

A list of poets I’ve learned from later would go on forever. Just a few names: the anonymous poet who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Shakespeare, Marvell, Pope, Hopkins, Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Pound, Frost, Stevens, Ashbery, Bly, Plath, Ginsberg… As you can see, mostly American. Though there are many Australian poets that I have great admiration for too. And also modern European poets, such as Zbigniew Herbert, and especially the Italian Nobel Laureate Eugenio Montale, whose poetry I’ve translated.

Q: Where do you draw your inspiration for your work from?

A: I’ve lived in various parts of the world from time to time: Italy, USA, UK, China, Germany. And in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and now Sydney. But I don’t explicitly try to write about these places, I just write in them and they find their place in the poems I write there, such as Perth’s Swan River where I would kayak with the dolphins. And I’ve only ever written one poem, more or less on a theme, to order. (It was about tennis.) My poems mostly spring from a rhythm that niggles at me, a rhythm that finds words to go with it. The rhythm and words lead on to a line, a sentence, a thought that wants to be explored. Until we can’t go any further, which is where the poem ends. The Swiss painter Paul Klee described his wonderful enigmatic paintings as ‘taking a line for a walk’. That describes my poems too. My occasional longer sequences have come about because the line has taken me on a longer walk through parts of my life than usual. They’re the most autobiographical of my works.

This wandering exploration is never utterly complete, any more than an explorer can put together a total picture of any land. It lives within its own limitations, and any poem that pretends otherwise is not only false but also pretentious. I think my next answer says more about this.

Q: Why exploration as your theme choice for your talk?

A: William Faulkner once wrote that literature ‘is not really supposed to “answer” things.’ My poems never give answers, never give prescription for how things should be or how, in any definitive way, they are. My poems are always aware that whatever structures of thought and language they build, there is always the blank page underneath them, the empty page that was there before the poem came into being and that will always be there, visible between and beneath the words. My poems are therefore a way of exploring this emptiness, venturing out like a child does, with whatever tools language can give us. They explore my awareness of the world and attempt to build a place in it – and its place in me – which is not somehow ‘real’ or ‘the truth’ in any metaphysical way, but which, as Wallace Stevens once said, ‘will suffice’. Or as Robert Frost said, poems are ‘a temporary stay against confusion’.

Q: You’ve written numerous poetry books and won prizes for your work in an industry that is quite difficult to excel in. What do you attribute your success to?

A: I haven’t really won many prizes, but then I’ve almost never entered my poems in any competitions. Especially now. Prizes are useful for young poets to further their careers, and older poets shouldn’t go in for them. I feel very strongly about this. What reputation I’ve had is probably due to the fact that I’ve been at the game for a long time, and I’ve had good publishers and at times good relations with editors. People have also said that the poetry I write isn’t much like that written by other poets, which might serve to make it stand out a bit. But it might also be a negative. I don’t know.

Q: What’s next?

A: There are always words, and rhythms. Since my most recent book, Impossible Preludes, came out in 2016 I haven’t written much, but Wallace Stevens once wrote that ‘Thought tends to collect in pools’. I’m waiting for the pool to fill again.

Catch Andrew at ‘A Touch of Poetry – An Evening with Andrew Taylor’ at Castle Hill Library on Wednesday, April 11, from 6.30pm to 7.30pm.

Book now to secure your spot at www.thehills.nsw.gov.au.

Leave a Reply