03. 03. 2006. 22:32

George Szirtes's blog - day five

The way to silence

After a year at Goldsmiths College, London, it was teaching work, children, Hertfordshire and the long struggle to make a reputation – a six-year struggle that seemed like sixty.

The drive to Oxford is roughly three and a half hours across the country so we had to set out soon after two to be certain of arriving by six. It was bright sunshine all the way, the roads reasonably clear.

The route is fairly familiar by now. We moved to Wymondham in the year our daughter, Helen, went up to Magdalen College in Oxford to read English Literature. Of all the beautiful colleges Magdalen is the most beautiful, set in a deer park, next to the river, with its chapel where the choristers sing on May morning. The tutorial system was in operation then, though it may not be for much longer. Teaching was conducted on a personal one-to-one, or at most two-to-one basis. Helen was taught by two outstanding poets, John Fuller and Bernard O’Donoghue, as well as a notable scholar, David Norbrook, her task being to read out her weekly essay to them and discuss it in a comfortable armchair in a beautiful ancient room.

My education wasn’t like that. After two years of studying Physics, Chemistry and Zoology at school to a far from high standard, I took up Art and finding, to my surprise, that it was something I could excel in, fell in love with it. I was writing by then, but had no qualifications in literature, so went off to art college for five years, first in London where I met Clarissa, my wife, then, for three years in Leeds and finally back in London again for a year of postgraduate study.

Leeds is a northern industrial town, and at the beginning of the seventies was just entering a period of decline. It meant cobbled streets with weeds growing in every crevice, back to back terrace houses with outside toilets, washing lines hanging in yard after yard, and the thick Yorkshire accent. The landscape nearby was wild and spectacular – craggy moors and scrubs. I grew very fond of it. The teaching consisted of a vast studio where some sixty or seventy would-be painters could make themselves small personal spaces, and some artists who would drift through the studios and discuss the students’ work in progress - nothing more formal than that, except on a Wednesday when it was semi-obligatory to attend art history seminars and complementary studies seminars on subjects such as film, anthropology, or music, or – in my case – poetry, with a poet called Martin Bell who was to become very important to me, the first real poet in my life.

Martin was an alcoholic and stuttered a great deal. He claimed to be able to cast curses on those who crossed him, though I imagined this was partly play and part irony. He was a good and kind teacher and knew an enormous amount of poetry by heart. We met every week for three years, usually in a group with five or six others, to discuss poems by famous, but to us unfamiliar, writers. It was the closest I came to a formal education. When Martin was ill I would visit him in his two rooms in a very poor part of the city and read to him or showed him my latest poem.

He died in 1978 in the same poverty, having lost his job at the art college. By this time Clarissa and I were married. After a year at Goldsmiths College, London, it was teaching work, children, Hertfordshire and the long struggle to make a reputation – a six-year struggle that seemed like sixty.

I come to Oxford nowadays to read poems to colleges or to talk about translation. This was a translation talk with some reading of translated poems. I wrote it in haste in the morning because the organiser, a young Romanian-born poet, Carmen Bugan who, like me, writes only in English, asked that the text be publishable. Normally I don’t write lectures but speak from a few minimal notes. I have thought about this subject for so long that it never seems difficult stringing a talk together and extending the thoughts to whatever the theme happens to be  - on this occasion the nature of poetry itself and the process of writing it. It seemed to go very well with a lot of questions afterwards, about an hour and a half altogether, and we spent another half an hour afterwards in animated conversation with our host, the poet, scholar and ex-publisher, Jon Stallworthy – a fine translator himself.  Wolfson College is a specialist postgraduate college, a twentieth century complex of buildings in Le Corbusier style. I am sitting in one of the guest rooms as I write this, a large lawn to my left, the grass lush, faintly covered in light frost that is rapidly disappearing in the sun. It is very quiet. Clarissa is showering. I need time to write – and to translate –, but this week and the next few days are very full. The silence is welcome.

George Szirtes' website

Tags: The way to silence