Issue 149, Winter 1998
This interview was conducted through a series of letters, followed by a full afternoon of conversation in July 1998, at the Tomlinson house in Gloucestershire—its quaint and typically English address, Brook Cottage, Ozleworth Bottom, Wotton-under-Edge. The Tomlinsons have lived at Ozleworth since 1958. Originally, they bought one half of the cottage, then—three years later—the other, breaking through a wall to expand their space. With its stone walls, slate roof, low-beamed ceilings and casement windows, the house fits anyone's postcard or dream image of idiomatic English architecture. Outside, a border garden surrounds the cottage; on a moist midsummer day it was bursting with hollyhocks, flowering mint, buddleia, deep purple poppies and (of course) roses.
The interior of the cottage reflects simultaneously the Tomlinsons' unshakable Englishness and their lifetime of international travel and living abroad. Staffordshire figurines stand on bookcase and mantel; Victorian commemorative china and faience from Quimper decorate the walls, along with prints by Hiroshige and Piranesi. A beautiful nineteenth-century parlor piano with intricate carving stands across from the stereo. Brightly colored Indian fabrics, Mexican candelabras and Native American artifacts add still more generous accents.
The poet—tall, rail thin, courtly—wears an impressive jet ring, set in silver and extending to the knuckle; it is a memento of travels in, and fondness for, the American Southwest. Tomlinson met his wife, Brenda, in their native Stoke on Trent when he was sixteen and she fifteen. She was so blond that he thought she must have come from the large immigrant Czech community that had settled in Stoke during the 1930s. She was, in fact, the postman's daughter.
Charles Tomlinson's first “pamphlet of verse,” entitled Relations and Contraries was published in 1951. In his 1985 Collected Poems he chose to include only a single poem from the early work, so his first “authentic” book was The Necklace (1955). In Seeing Is Believing (1958) Tomlinson achieved his characteristic voice and subject matter: the poetry since then has been marked by a painterly attention to landscape and to place in general, by an objective rendering of scenes and characters, and above all by a reluctance to indulge in confessional, narcissistic self-displays of emotion or melodrama. Since the Collected Poems, four elegant shorter volumes have appeared, the latest of which is called Jubilation (1995), which puns on the Spanish jubilación, the word for retirement.
Having retired in 1992 from a long teaching career at the University of Bristol, Charles Tomlinson was prepared to devote himself full-time to reading, writing and translating, with occasional travels and lecturing. In 1997 a botched routine cataract operation deprived him of sight in his left eye. In the following months the poet suffered an understandable (and by his own admission, uncharacteristic) depression. Brenda, his wife of fifty years, pulled him through with a combination of attentive care, cheerfulness and reading aloud. The Tomlinsons have made such recitations a standard part of their life together, and the poet said that during his convalescence War and Peace and all of Jane Austen brought him around. “Why have books on tape, when I have Brenda?” he asked.
In your poem “Jubilación” you write about rejoicing in retirement. Obviously, the ordeal with your sight was unanticipated: how has it affected your retirement?
You begin with the very episode I'm trying to put behind me, the failure of a cataract operation. A good place to begin in some ways, then we can put it behind us both. Although the loss of central vision in my left eye came as a great shock, I've managed to finish a new book called The Vineyard Above the Sea. The title poem is partly a response to Paul Valéry's “Le Cimetière Marin,” but also a continuation of my many poems of gratitude to Italy. In addition to that, I've gone on to write a surprising number of things drawn from the Cotswold area in which I've long lived and to which I've now retired. So it's really business as usual.
Have you come to rely more on your ears than your eyes at this point?
I still gather nourishment from sources that have been there for a long time. I've always counted on the ear as well as the eye—what poet doesn't? So whatever adjustments have been taking place, or may take place, there's no overnight somatic transformation to report: I continue to look with the right eye, though I no longer experience the easy panoramic sweep with which I once read a landscape, and the same is true of reading a book. I'm painfully aware of that. But translating painful awareness directly into verse has never been my way. One thing I will confess—the period of this unanticipated injury has required much coming to terms with. I think I'm through the first phase. Despair is no longer perpetually at my elbow. The anger I felt at first (perfectly irrational) with fate or whatever has slackened, though not completely disappeared. I have so many friends, and that awareness has sustained me and moved me away from self-involvement. And I have my wife. Indeed, before the ghastly surgery took place, I wrote for her and for them the little poem that concludes my Selected—the New Directions volume of last year—and that poem places eye and ear in some kind of perspective. It's called “A Backward Glance”:
Searching my verse, to read what I'd once said, It was the names on names of friends I read And yours in every book, that made me see How love and friendship nurture poetry.
Although you claimed to look forward to retirement, it would seem that a backward glance would also be inevitable. Your career has gone on for almost fifty years. How would you characterize its progress? Could you begin with your education, first at school and then at university? How did you prepare to become a poet?
When I got to university I was deeply disappointed. I realized rather quickly that the teaching from my tutor at Cambridge was inferior to the stimulus I had received at school. You need two good teachers in any school, which is what we had, to get through the message of civilization—the role schools are there to fulfill. I owe everything to my two good teachers: Gerhardt Kuttner (soon to be anglicized as Gerard Cutner), a German Jew and a refugee from Hitler, who taught us German; and a Scot, Cecil Scrimgeour, who taught us French and who was much influenced by the Quakers and yet admired the civilization of Louis XIV's France. When I told a colleague in the French department at the University of Bristol a few years ago that at school we read Racine, Corneille, Molière and worked our way in considerable detail through an anthology containing Hugo, Baudelaire, Gautier and Verlaine, he said, “We don't expect that kind of thing nowadays.” I felt his tone meant he thought I was exaggerating. What I didn't tell him was that this anthology contained a thorough account of French versification and that we'd also done a Balzac novel. Our German wasn't as concentratedly taught as that, but to have a grounding in Schiller, Heine, Kleist and Carossa was no mean beginning, and to have someone who could explain to us Kant's categorical imperative, give us a rapid outline of Nietzsche, introduce one to the work of Rilke, describe the way Thomas Mann pared an apple with surgical precision—well, all that was opening a way beyond the black industrial town where I was born into a sense of Europe itself.
So reading took you from the provinces into a more cosmopolitan, or international frame of mind?
It was that sense of belonging to Europe, which took root early in my imagination. When our French teacher, as background to Racine, gave us a course on tragic drama, reaching back to the Greeks, and actually quoted from Aristotle's Poetics, my heart stood still. He explained all the Greek terms like peripeteia and anagnorisis to us. So when I saw Puccini's La Bohème(my very first opera) at the local theater, I noted how many of these terms applied to the Puccini and, back at school, told him of this. “Yes,” he said, “but rather cheaply embodied.” My feelings were a little dashed. I still think he was somewhat hard on Puccini, but the salutary challenge introduced me to the notion of critical standards, and the realization that terminology in the abstract couldn't really help you with the question of quality. A good early warning about the futility of theory.
How about life at Cambridge?
My final year at Cambridge was a compensation for my first. I acquired a new supervisor, a young man just returned from service at sea, and this was Donald Davie. We went on to educate each other and ultimately to criticize each other's verse. This was the beginning of a fifty-year friendship, ending only with Donald's recent death. Without his introduction and approval of my first real collection, The Necklace, I should not have found my way into print. His thinking about poetic syntax in Articulate Energy clarified my own enormously and in many ways prepared me to write my first full-scale book of poems, Seeing Is Believing. This book, with the help of another friend, Hugh Kenner, who like Donald saw and believed, found a publisher in New York, beginning what was to be a long and fruitful relationship with America. The youthful European needed that. There was a new world. Henry James complained that it had no ruins. But he had never been to the deserts of the Southwest and seen the cliff dwellings of the Canyon de Chelly or the remains of Quarai and those in Chaco Canyon. All that, alongside modern America, was part of my continuing education—something Cambridge had failed to prepare me for.
Although characteristically British in style and temperament, you have been unusual in your affection for America— its landscape, people and art. How did this come about? With what provocation?
You're absolutely right. When I first went to America, it was the place you didn't go to. When I got back, people said, “Glad to be home, I imagine.” My resolute reply was always, “Not particularly.” How did it happen, my being drawn to America? All bits and pieces, to begin with. A monochrome reproduction of a Georgia O'Keeffe in a book that was a twenty-first birthday present (we were to meet her in New Mexico), a fascination with the poetry of Stevens and of Marianne Moore that was later to extend itself to Williams, thanks to the insistence—which I first of all resisted—of Gael Turnbull. Gael was one of those people American poets had reason to be grateful to. He spoke up for Williams, and from Migrant Books in Worcester he distributed Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, William Bronk, Allen Ginsberg. In his review, Migrant, there were French Canadians and there was Ed Dorn.