John Fuller is a leading poet and novelist whose works, noted for their playfulness and technical brilliance, are beloved of both the public and the critical world. He has won or been shortlisted for a dizzying number of awards, including the Geoffrey Faber memorial prize, the Whitbread Prize and the Forward Prize. His first book, Fairground Music in 1961, has been followed by around forty works, including poetry collections, novels, short story collections and books of criticism.
He has also done a great deal of editing and worked as an academic for forty years, the majority of them as a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. Between 1968 and 1992, he ran the Sycamore Press from his garage, which published W.H.Auden, Peter Porter and Philip Larkin as well as providing a platform for new young poets.
Questions by Kit Toda and Dan Eltringham
Despite having achieved a great deal of success as a novelist, you still tend to be referred to as a poet. Why do you think this is? If you were asked ‘what do you do’, how would you respond?
I think that this is a problem with criticism, really. Of course I’ve sometimes had things written about me that do take into account both my poetry and fiction, but on the whole it is simply the case that literary editors and reviewers find it hard to multitask. It seems impossible for some poetry reviewers even to remember just what a poet has been up to in previous collections, let alone have any idea at all about what his novels or other work might be like. A fiction reviewer will similarly have a blind spot about poems. But of course these two sides of the writing life are more intimately related than you’d think. Some of my novels have been peppered with poems. Some of my very short stories are indistinguishable from prose poems. I have written a book-length novel in verse. And so on. You might think that with such blurred boundaries the critics would provide a compensating focus of discriminating attention.
In my case, I started writing poems early on and came to fiction relatively late, so that is why I am usually referred to as a poet. Many of the novelists I admire (Hardy, Meredith, Lawrence, for example) were substantial poets, and effectively pursued distinct and major careers in both areas. Some poets I admire have produced a novel or two (eg. Jarrell) and some novelists a collection of poems or two (eg. Updike), but that of course is not quite the same: Jarrell’s and Updike’s minor genres are kept critically in their place. Lawrence would have been a major writer in my opinion if he had never written fiction at all (and he died at 47!). “Writer” is a useful term in any case, as it covers all the other things one ends up doing.
You have mentioned that you consider music (and not poetry) the ‘senior and supreme art’. How did this admiration for the ‘senior’ form, inform your collection Waiting for the Music?
Waiting for the Music was put together as a sort of pamphlet-length collection for Tom Fenton’s Salamander Press, little more than a kind of sequence of themed sequences. But he published it handsomely in a squareish format in both hardback and paperback, and as a result it seems to have focussed thoughts about music that would have been more extensively diffused through all my work. In Waiting for the Music the subject appears largely as a metaphor for various human excitements. Looking back on it now, I find a more sensuous treatment of the subject than I suspected at the time, although there is plenty about time and timelessness, and stillness and silence, as well.
The Space of Joy also frequently concerns itself with composers, and especially Brahms. In what ways is music or the idea of musical composition connected to your poetry?
Brahms in The Space of Joy was the best example I could come up with of an intensely Romantic artist who could not commit to a human relationship. My other case-histories in the book were largely writers, though the self-sacrificing Sachs of The Mastersingers is there to speak up for pure song (even if in reality he was a playwright). It is always hard, of course, to write about music, to evoke its quidditas. I tried to get the feel of late Brahms by quoting the song that fed into the first movement of the Second Violin Sonata, and by voicing his enthusiasms and passions, but a reader who has no recourse to hearing Brahms in his head when reading my poem will, I imagine, have a shallower experience.
I had this problem in spades, by the way, when I invented a contemporary composer for my novel Tell It Me Again. The reader ultimately has to take the character of the music on trust, however much it is described. But there shouldn’t be too much of a problem about it because it is clear that Hugh Howard is a derivative composer and a weak man. Any second-rate British music would do for the reader’s inner ear.
W.H.Auden: A Commentary has now become a classic of Auden criticism. Do you feel the poet-critic provide something different from the critic who does not write poetry himself? How do you feel that the two disciplines relate?
I take a rather uninteresting position on this question, I’m afraid. Despite Dryden’s celebrated claim, and the way it has been kept alive by poet-critics like T. S. Eliot, I don’t think that a good critic needs to be a practitioner at all. Some of the critics I most enjoy for their intelligence and resourcefulness (Ricks, say, or Frank Kermode or Eric Griffiths) don’t appear to have ever been poets themselves. And many poets I admire often simply assert their views as critics and expect you to add your vote (Eliot himself is like this, and Auden too, very categorical). Poet-critics can sometimes seem too keen to define an exclusive club of work that they approve of. But that can be the sin of any critic, it has to be said.
It seems that now a great many poets are also academics like yourself. Do you think that this may have changed the current poetry scene? Is academia the ideal environment for a novelist or a poet?
The era of the campus poet is probably in decline now. When I was young, it seemed perfectly desirable to take up a career in which one would actually be paid for reading and thinking about poetry all the time, so applying for lectureships didn’t seem at all evasive. My seniors who had done so were in different ways charismatic figures, both in the practice of poetry (Kingsley Amis) and in the practice and the theory of it (Donald Davie). The alternative was a Bohemianism which my generation happened to be largely in revolt from.
The “current poetry scene” today (whatever that may be!) has moved far from the academy, surely, though many poets are still keen to find placements and sinecures that give them opportunities to write. Poetry can be written in any context and out of any experience or limitation of experience. We know this from all the obvious examples. So I have never thought that a poet should deliberately seek one sort of gainful employment rather than another.
Of course renowned poets tend to have a great deal of technical skill but I feel that you and Auden share a particularly highly developed technical virtuosity in poetry. Do you feel a poetic kinship with him? When and how did you first come across Auden and how do you feel his poetry may have affected yours?
Auden was a very early enthusiasm of mine (at school, aged about 16). I particularly loved The Orators, which I suppose I barely understood at all (it still leaves me breathless). But Robert Graves was an equal enthusiasm. And Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop. And many 17th and 18th century poets. Auden is, in company of this sort, obviously the most ostentatiously gifted in a technical sense. But this doesn’t stop him having written a great deal too much, and often carelessly (as he never failed to acknowledge himself).
I firmly share his view that a poem must be written when it is ready to be written, and is wasted if attempted too soon, and stale if too late. This is the hardest skill to deploy, very different from verse-making in itself, which all poets need to be good at, after all.
I find it interesting that many contemporary artists seem to have little technical skill, but are rather good at seizing the moment in the sense that I have just described. Artists, composers and poets all need attention, and attention is not readily given if the work is not of the moment. So that skill in judging what needs to be done and when it needs to be done is somehow crucial. Virtuosity itself can be a dangerous distraction, but all artists need something of it. Poets in particular often seem to neglect craft because they feel that verbal expression is something that should or could come naturally (wrong!). All this is a puzzle, because poetry is written close to the chest and often doesn’t know what it is really doing or has achieved.
Talking of music and technical virtuosity, your latest collection often reminded me of the violinist Paganini who is said to have written pieces so demanding that even he could not play them and then practised religiously until he could. I was wondering whether you had a similar process when you write those poems that follow an elaborate set of rules? Could you talk us through the writing process of poems such as ‘The Trans-sexual Circus’ and the “autograms”?
I have always loved contributing to the rules and forms of verse, even though after a long history of the tradition there seem to be only rare opportunities for novelty. You mention my invention of the “autogram”, for example. I had long felt that a new verse form for the comic biography ought to possible. Most of them (the limerick, for example, the clerihew, and the double-dactyl) have precise and definable rules. Everyone enjoys them, don’t they? The autogram is allowed to write about its subject using only the letters of its subject’s name. It is strange how this quite arbitrary limitation contributes something to the final effect. The form belongs to the general family of lipograms, I suppose, which were revived by Perec and the OuLiPeans.
I also like the neatness of exhausting all variations on rhyme or end-words (as the sestina famously does: it couldn’t be longer because the order of the end-word changes would come round again). I did this in my longish poem “Star Gazing” with sections using in turn each of the ten possible stanzas that consist of two rhymes and five lines. “The Trans-sexual Circus” uses fully alliterative inverted rhopalic couplets throughout the alphabet: a circus effect in itself.
None of this is terribly important. It can be part of the reader’s sense of fun, or it might not be noticed at all and simply help the writer to organise his material. To go back to your first question, my novel A Skin Diary is bursting with OuLiPean devices, but no one has ever told me that they have discovered them. Really that novel is a long prose poem. It is intended, despite its sad story of sexual misunderstanding, to be a work of mystic glee, and I think the verbal games do actually help to energise it.
Your poetry has often been characterised as having a ‘lightness of touch’. Yet there is a marked shyness in referring to ‘light verse’ when praising a writer. When the words ‘light verse’ are mentioned regarding you, it is usually accompanied by a qualifying statement:
“If Fuller deserves a place in the line of distinguished light-verse practitioners, it’s with Lewis Carroll and WS Gilbert on the sinister side rather than with the more genial Ogden Nash or Gavin Ewart.” (The Times)
“a bridge […] between light verse and solemn elegy” (Peter Porter)
There is I feel a sense that great literature and light verse cannot ever be one and the same, that if something is light but great then there must be some graveness within it. Do you feel this is true? Can light verse be as ‘great’ as an epic? Would it displease you if you were referred to as a ‘writer of light verse’?
A couple of years ago I was awarded a prize for light verse by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It was a great surprise, and felt a bit like an Oscar. But light isn’t all I do, by any means, and if I were to be so described I would feel cheated. It would be like Robert de Niro being admired solely for his role as Rupert Pupkin or in Meet the Fockers. But light is good, too. I take it that light is not just feathery filling, but also tensile alloy. Auden’s preface to his Oxford Book of Light Verse is the place to find the genre defended at its widest and most stimulating.
Do you think the experience of running the non-profit Sycamore Press changed you as a writer, in terms of methodology, subject, politics, etc?
I was intrigued by this question, but the answer has to be: not at all. You might think that a candle-lit hand-press started in 1968 must have at least partly intended to subvert censorship in a revolutionary situation, but that was something I only ever joked about. I tried not to print my own work on the whole. I don’t think that being a publisher changed my taste.
How do you feel about the divide between the so-called traditionalist/mainstream and the so-called avant-garde/alternative factions of the poetry scene?
This is such a big question. If I may give the briefest of answers, I think that really great poets somehow manage to sidestep these alternatives (Yeats, Stevens). And I also think that there are times when the tradition actually does become the “alternative”. Auden’s reaction in 1932 to pretentious modernism was precisely such a moment. His investigation and adoption of mainstream forms was much more exciting than the avant-garde, as we all now recognize.
In my lifetime there has been a similar moment. I started writing when G. S. Fraser and (a bit later) the Movement poets were calling things to order after the thoughtless ’forties. It seemed quite natural for Thom Gunn to admire Fulke Greville, or Davie to write in heroic quatrains like a late eighteenth century poet. There is always some sort of action and reaction going on. For example, something that came soon after that was Lowell suddenly discovering the more accurate pencil of prosiness after his highly-coloured formal verses. What has to be remembered is that good poetry will survive its local programmes and antagonisms, and if it enters that public consciousness that we call the tradition it will speak for itself and not against anything else.