Interview with Peter Abbs
CJB- Perhaps you could begin by talking a little about your experiences of first approaching Creative Writing at Higher Education?
PA- I came into the field of Creative Writing in Higher Education from teaching at secondary level. I began teaching English at Filton High School, Bristol, in the Autumn of 1966. The idea of teaching English creatively was in the air. I became quickly interested in the then influential writing of David Holbrook and Marjorie Hourd. It was an exciting time! I felt two things very strongly. The first was that education was not a means to an end, but a primary activity in itself - an intrinsic value that needed no external justification. The second was that one of the key purposes of education was to release and guide the creativity of the individual. In relationship to English, this meant that studying literature had to be made more vital, more existential; but more than this, it had to open up the student's own creative powers, the power to write poems, stories, dramas. The notion was hugely idealistic, like a revolution - a paradigm change that carried a charge of utopian energy. I wrote my first book English for Diversity in two weeks, my mood alternating between rage and hope. Not a good book! But what was good, I think, even now, were the poems by some of the pupils. They demonstrated an exceptional linguistic power. They showed that such an experiment was possible in education; that adolescents could write with compelling energy. The central idea was that this expressive energy could be brought into the tradition of literature and English; could become, in part, a discipline of feeling and imagination. The dialectic lay between the complementary forces of a canonical tradition of exemplary works with its own set of genres, and that of the innate creativity residing in every person. In short, a fusion of forces, not child-centred and not subject-centred, but a synthesis of these.
Of course, the gross government interference in the educational debate over the last two decades has killed off completely the once feisty field of authentic educational innovation. The yeast has been taken from the kitchen. We are witnessing here a depletion of the first order.
CJB- Then, what implications do you feel these ideas and ideals have for your practice in Higher Education?
PA- The conception I brought with me into Higher Education has changed, of course, but I think the insight has remained fairly constant. In Higher Education my concern with the meeting of individual creativity and the encompassing literary culture expressed itself in the notion of a Conservationist Aesthetic. This was a sharp reaction against making everything socially relevant and ideological in the teaching of English. It came out of a frustration with social realism and the routine teaching of issues of a sociological kind; race, class, gender. It was an affirmation of imagination and the hard discipline of creating work with real artistic merit. I wanted to stand against the extreme represented by both high Modernism and Progressivism. The Conservationist Aesthetic existed to develop at least two notions.
The first was that as teachers work creatively with all the genres of literature and we must see these genres going back and back into Historic culture. For example, if one is encouraging students to engage with the writing of lyrics, one really ought to open up the seminal importance of Sappho’s singing in the seventh century BC and do so by taking the excellent ‘Postmodern’ translations by Anne Carson. ‘Only connect’, is the motto of a Conservationist Aesthetic. And the whole process of engagement has to be seen dynamically - between student and teacher, between this poem now and that poem then, between the quick of the moment and the great fertile past.
The second notion was to do with another connection, but of a different kind. It was to do with envisaging Literature as one of the arts and to see all the arts as generically related. Almost back to Aristotle; this time though, with creativity and the disciplining of creativity at the top of the agenda. For historical reasons English as a curriculum discipline has nearly always pointed away from the other arts. The challenge of a Conservationist Aesthetic was to bring it back into relationship and inter-play; to set, for example, this lyric just written to music; to illustrate this anthology of poems with burning Images (in the manner of Blake or David Jones); to turn this short story into a radio play and so forth. Once one has made the conceptual connection the possibilities are legion. And yet this path has not been taken except at the very edges of established practice.
CJB- Following along the same lines, do you see Creative Writing programmes across the UK aspiring to anything like these ideals? What do you think of the state of Creative Writing in the UK?
PA-Well, in many ways it thrives - with D.Phil, MA and Undergraduate courses available in most British Universities. There has been a huge expansion in the last ten years. It is hard to see the over-all pattern and grasp what it really represents. Without doubt, some excellent centres are emerging - like that of Saint Andrews in Scotland for poetry. The pattern, as befits the age, is hugely eclectic and some courses seem to be market-led with programmes on writing best-sellers, TV soaps and so on. In this sense there is a diffusion and loss of critical meaning, all part of Postmodernism in a way.
It is also the case that in many undergraduate courses academics are teaching ‘Creative Writing’ without any real appreciation of the kind of discipline it is. It is popular, so it is introduced without real finesse or proper resourcing. Of course, the very term ‘Creative Writing’ is warped from the start. For all forms of writing at their best - the writing of history, the writing of science - are inherently creative. The very term implicitly encourages a cognitive schizophrenia that is simply false - Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writing is as creative as Virginia Woolf’s. But I am not sure what term now would generically cover the field. I have to confess the term ‘Creative Writing’ makes me feel a certain nausea!
The idea of seeing English as an arts discipline, as a discipline belonging with all the other arts, is still very much on the edge. And it is obvious why - a functional age like ours cannot really grasp the power of imagination or of the possibility of vital acts of cognition though the living senses, something totally contra with Progressivism and the market economy. The idea that a composer like Beethoven is a great philosopher is beyond it! This particular conception of Creative Writing within the field of Literature and within the field of the Arts, still needs bringing to life. In the eclectic pattern it has still to find its subversive place.
CJB- In 1978 you released your first book of poems, For Man and Islands, the first poem of which is called ‘As Descartes’. In it you express impatience with the ‘thinker’, that “will censor the influx/Of my senses.” Though by contrast, in one of your most recent collections of poems, Viva la Vida, you devote a whole section to Nietzsche’s philosophy and eventual madness. Could you tell me a little about how you feel your attitude toward the role of the ‘thinker’ in the creative act has changed through the course of career as a poet?
PA- Yes, the first poem in For Man and Islands is really against Descartes. I have long been interested in the relationship of poetry to philosophy and the other way round. The point about that poem is that I want the poet to represent
living knowledge, to be a “minister to the conjugating universe”, but somehow in the narrative of the poem the poet fails and retreats to his study, blocking all incoming sensuous experience.
I have always had the hunch that understanding must include the whole person - the body, the senses, the feelings, the imagination - caught up in the moment of living in the world, part of history and part of the biosphere. In Descartes that full sense of being philosophically alive is denied...The cogito took over and yet rational thought is only one part of a hugely complex psyche! Philosophy became often an imposition of logical categories onto the world, or later - in Locke, say, a means of cleansing the language for scientific advance. This seemed to me to deny our most fundamental sense of what it is to be alive. Our state of embarrassment, before others can tell us more about who we are than any logical equation or mathematical formula. And so can falling in love or suffering depression. All our moods are potential meanings. I wanted the poet to begin with such experience, to represent it, to penetrate it, capturing the phenomena for contemplation - but this is philosophy!
Which brings me to Nietzsche. He is, surely, the greatest philosopher-poet of the 19th Century. This is so for many reasons, but one of them is to do with his reclaiming the living world of our experience from those, like Plato, who made it only a shadowy replica of the Ideal world, what became, under Christianity, known as ‘the next’. He was saving the appearances by making them the realities with which we have to engage with and with all our faculties. Also, of course, I came to admire his notion of Übermensch, at least when presented under the form of the artist.
I am wanting to suggest that Nietzsche is the creative answer to Descartes - as well as Plato. It is for this reason that his clinical breakdown in the last years of his life is so poignant. His philosophy pointed to so much more. It is precisely the pathos, the appalling gap between the ideal and the actuality, which I wanted to bring out in the long sequence of poems in Viva la Vida.
CJB- So, to come back to my original question, do you then think your conception of creativity has changed due to this kind of intense philosophical engagement?
PA- Yes, you are right to press me on the point. I think, on reflection, that there has been a significant change. When I was writing For Man and Islands, I saw the thinker as a kind of threat to my work. Now, looking at philosophy more broadly, I would see all philosophy as an attempt to embrace parts of reality important to us. And towards this end, I hope my work now is more balanced and integrated. It is important to remember that Nietzsche was a poet, but also an analytical philosopher.
CJB- In your view, have the tasks of the modern poet taken a distinctive shift from those of previous times? In terms of poetry’s ability to communicate, challenge and perhaps even survive as a dynamic and supple medium, has what is being asked of the poet changed?
PA- Well, the conditions are not that marvellous. Poetry has become fragmented among a number of tiny coteries. They are very intense, utterly devoted groups, even factions. But the position of the art form in society as a whole is precarious. One does not confess to being a poet when asked what one does in the supermarket. A new book of poetry sells, often, around 500 –or less- copies and the same is true of some of the best poetry magazines. They limp along with the contributors being the subscribers and an arts council grant meeting the inevitable financial shortfall. That is how it is - with the possible exception of rap and some pretty light weight pub readings.
I think there are no easy answers to this dilemma. But the tasks of the poet must remain those of keeping the language richly alive, of keeping open the great work of the past, of representing the exact lineaments of immediate contemporary -often shocking - experience, and of working to take the work into the world. I think the obligation is a perennial one. It is still that of Orpheus, singing the vision, singing the pain, singing the hope. For me the poet Rilke captures most fully the ideal commitment. Metaphor and metamorphosis are at the very heart of our enterprise.
CJB- In light of your long commitment to Eco-poetics, do you feel that you too are part of a fragmented group like so many others in the poetic spectrum? To be more pointed; do you feel that Eco-poetics has a more valuable offering, in light of pressing ecological issues, than say, that of the second generation of LANGUAGE poets?
PA- My position is that poets are inevitably in coteries, because the age is not an age for poetry. Eco-poetics is obviously not a total poetics. Poets don’t meet agendas set by other people, poets are addressed by experience that is ineffable. Above all, poets must be true to the perennial function of making poetry. So here I’m in a curious position of advocacy. Yet, I do want to see Eco-poetics as a living challenge to the contemporary poet. My basic feeling is that we need to address the pathology that has been instituted in our relationship to nature since, at least, the Industrial Revolution.The terrible predicament we are in does require a re-orientation of consciousness, nothing less than a new covenant between humankind and nature. This is a profound challenge to our imagination and, therefore, to all artists - and, of course, poets. It is a further and quite necessary amplification of the Romantic Movement. Earth Songs, the anthology of contemporary poetry I edited for Green Books, was my own attempt to respond to this urgent matter.
CJB-Your work in progress, entitled The Story of the Self aims at establishing what you have referred to as “an archaeology of the Western self”. Do you see this project as the natural culmination of your interests throughout your academic career or, with its professedly ambitious objective, as a different kind of foray, one that would be comparable, for instance with Richard Tarnas’ Passion of the Western Mind or Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self?
PA- I feel awkward talking about The Story of the Self. It is such an impossible venture and I’m all but bound to fail. If it gets written, it will be the book I always wanted to find and couldn't as a young man. It’s an archaeology and a mapping. I was never given an overview of European culture in my education. It was an ad hoc curriculum of bits and pieces. Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 4. Sometimes the mechanical pragmatism of the English mind appals me. I am ashamed to be English! In America they are much better at giving out the canonical texts, readings from Plato to Derrida, and in France they teach the history of philosophy.
I cannot not be sure about the status of The Story of the Self yet. You put it in grand company. Richard Tarnas has written an excellent guide. His Passion of the Western Mind is masterly. So also, though in a more plodding fashion, is the book Sources of Self by Charles Taylor. All I can say is that I am ploughing the same rich soil. It relates to a conservationist aesthetic but in the realm of the spirit and our problematic understanding of the soul. It is too early to know how it will finish or what I will make of it when I do. A hazardous project!
CJB- You have written that one of the great developments of the western self has been that, and I quote, “Our approach to the self now tends to be more holistic”, but how can this be the case when Postmodernism is so often the academic doxa and, in civil life, is represented by an increasingly fractured, commodified and fashionable understanding of self that belies any notion of holism? Would it not be more accurate to point out that this is one aspect of the Western inheritance which has resolutely not been maintained and developed?
PA- You are right to pick me up on the Postmodern fractured self. All I can say is that there is a dialectic at work - as always! In this sense I am a kind of Hegelian. In a great deal of theory in the Humanities the breakdown is evident. The emphasis is on fracture, the collapse of all encompassing narratives, the end of essence. But still, in our contemporary world we do find a real, almost anguished, concern for the holistic, the healing of what is broken, the desire for integration. Often at a conceptually risible level, I know. Though it is there, for example in the work of philosopher Mary Midgley and in James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia theory’, where you find profoundly different conceptions about the nature of identity housed within vivifying notions of evolution and the biosphere. In The Story of the Self, I will clearly have to represent both movements and negotiate a path between them. Not easy! But I think I will aim to propose a notion of psychological integration within a matrix of an emergent identity, which cannot be predefined in advance and which advances through the dialectic of life.
CJB- Well, not to beg the question too overtly, but how do you intend to do this?
PA- I may want to draw in Orpheus as a figure of integration, to convert him into a metaphor of absolute unity through suffering and division, through the power of creativity. Orpheus is a very interesting character. He does not belong exactly to the Greeks. He seems to have come in from the East, and is connected to nature more so than, say, Zeus or Hephaistos or Prometheus - those figures of male power and domination. So Orpheus may emerge at the end of the book as radical metaphor: an Übermench figure compatible, not with the rougher, fascistic side of Nietzsche, but with a much more feminine, gentle and strangely charismatic aspect. It is a mesmerising image.
At the moment, however, what I call an ‘Electronic Tribal Culture’ is emerging across the planet. In this culture differences are largely eradicated through gross acts of deception and flattery. Seduced by media images that they are separate and unique, ‘individuals’ are being hugely directed by multinationals. Global culture homogenises while sounding individualistic, there’s the irony. So we have to see our way through this contradiction too. The present eco crisis - the diminishing of natural resources, the many outcomes of global warming - may help to expose some of the deceptions...the task is enormous. Quite daunting.
CJB- Finally, throughout the great canon of Western intellectuals and groups which have worked upon the self, is there any particular individual, school or society that you feel yourself predominantly drawn towards and influenced by?
PA- At different times as a writer one is drawn towards quite different groups. At the moment I am analysing the Stoics for The Story of the Self and have been much impressed at how they developed habits of introspection to achieve an inner detachment and how they formed groups and friendships to work on themselves. Foucault found himself strongly drawn to them as philosophers working on the art of living - what he calls, with a questionable trendiness, “the technologies of the self”. Again and again, thinkers in Western culture have gone back to find examples from the past that have been truly inspirational and quite crucial to their work. Jung, for example, saw in his later life the alchemists as models of his own notion of psychoanalysis, alchemy being equivalent to the therapist working on the prima materia of experience to release the individuated self, the metaphoric gold. For him, it was a vital rooting into the humus of the past.
We go back to the past for resources, for possible images of practice and for ways of thinking. For the moment philosophy has become largely the analysis of language and its various uses; it has missed the search for eudaimonia, the art of living well. I’ve found it deeply refreshing, then, to find that throughout the Classical world the notion of philosophy was, first and foremost, a way of living, a way of being in the world: the personal and collaborative search for life wisdom. The Stoics picked up on this idea coming through Aristotle and Plato and forged new practices for working on the self. They have given me a real sense of a possible model for the twenty-first Century and have reaffirmed my notion that philosophy should concern itself with the art and act of living.
CJB- Thank you very much, Peter.