James Harpur was born in Britain, and now lives in Cork, Ireland. He has won numerous awards such as the 2009 Michael Hartnett Award and the 1995 British National Poetry Prize, and was the most recent recipient of The Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize offered by The University of Melbourne, for his newest book In Loco Parentis.
An odyssey through boarding school, the book explores the growth of consciousness in an adolescent trying to comprehend life within school, psychologically preparing himself for life outside. In fact Harpur’s poetry tends to reference these bigger philosophical and mythical themes as well as observances of the everyday world.
His book Angels and Harvesters (2012) sees part one referencing humanity and part two, heightened states of being and mysticism. He believes all poetry has a “direct mythic pressure” like the works of Yeats and Eliot, who he says were both “spiritual and poetic explorers”. Throughout this conversation his phrasings are somewhat poetic, mystic and certainly archetypal – read through and you will come across wonderful articulation. Enjoy.
From university and beyond: what was your foray into university like? What did you study, why, and what did you do after?
University was a time of exploration and experimenting. I went up to read Classics but soon changed to English Literature. At the time I was becoming interested in the theories and worldview of Carl Jung, so I would drive my tutors mad by writing essays on Jungian interpretations of Gawain and the Green Knight, King Lear, and so on. It was at this time that I got interested in poetry. I wrote a couple of one-act plays, which were put on by my college, but I soon realised that playwriting was full of hazards. A bit of lighting breaking down, the sound track missing its cue, or a lead actor going awol, could sabotage a whole production. I wanted a medium which involved just the writer and his or her reader(s). Poetry suited my temperament. My first poem, written at the relatively advanced age of 21, was about St Patrick getting rid of the snakes in Ireland, and it won five pounds in a college competition. With that I bought the Beatles’ song book and The Greeks and the Irrational, which more or less summed up my interests at the time. I left university determined to explore poetry until it gave up on me and went off and lived on the island of Crete for a year. There I taught English, haphazardly, and wrote poems, and that’s how I began my chequered poetic life.
What was your time in Crete like? What were your main observations and what did you learn while there – about poetry, about yourself …
Crete was a revelation. In 1980, when I pitched up, it was a relatively under-developed country, with all the pitfalls and charm that entailed. I was teaching in tiny country schools in the south of the island. I would be dropped off by a tractor and at first a swarm of kids with lice-preventative crew-cuts would gather round me as if I were E.T. They were great kids, friendly and enthusiastic, and the conditions were basic but serviceable. Evening lessons stopped at sunset, because some classrooms had no electric lights.
Sounds like it had a great influence on you.
I think my time on Crete was definitely a turning point. It was then, fresh out of university, that I made a pact with myself to devote myself to the poetic and spiritual life, and that everything else would be subsidiary. Apart from the teaching I had enough spare time to write poems and sharpen my appreciation of the English language. A lot of the time I was speaking a very basic form of English, to pupils or shopkeepers, and I began to thirst for and appreciate complex words, thoughts and sentences. If you want to value your language, go to a place where no one, or only a few, people speak it.
You have cited Yeats and Eliot as influencers. Why? What draws you to them, and have they taught you anything about poetry and expression?
Yeats and Eliot were both spiritual and poetic explorers, Yeats in quite whacky ways, Eliot in a more strait-laced fashion. Both were interested in ultimate truth, and I think both were more interested in expressing their findings on the pilgrimage path to the existential grail than writing just for the sake of finding satisfying patterns of words; which is not to say that they did not celebrate everyday life or current world events; but one always gets the sense that both writers were driven by some spiritual itch and the musicality and meaning of words was their way of satisfying it. Ted Hughes is another poet who shares a similar outlook. What they have taught me is not so much expression – though it’s inevitable that a poet absorbs the sound patterns of poetic ancestors – but their imaginative world view, their mythic and spiritual cabinets (Yeats’s Irish folkore, his intuited phases of history in A Vision; Eliot’s interest in the mystics – Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross; Hughes interest in Jung, shamanism, cabbala) – their poems are like tips of icebergs that embody the great mass of western spirituality in all its variety. It’s the same with William Blake.
When it comes to your poems, how do you start one? What is your ‘process’ like? How has your ‘process’ say, idea generation to execution, changed from when you got your first book published to your latest?
I start a poem by waiting. I think poetry differs from prose in being more reliant on the flash of lightning, or the Muse, as the uncontrollable element of inspiration used to be called. I can’t imagine saying to myself, ‘next Thursday I’m going to get up, walk the dog and then write a new poem’. Poems often come at unexpected times and in unusual ways.
Do you have a personal example?
Once I was sheltering from the rain in a church in Limerick, and I noticed a slit in the wall, like a medieval letter box. There was a sign beneath it saying ‘The Leper’s Squint’, something I had never heard of before. The explanation said it was basically a hole for lepers to thrust their hands through to receive holy communion – they were considered to be too unclean to enter the church. I instantly imagined a bizarre image of the priest in the church watching these strange, leprous hands suddenly appearing through the wall, one by one, and dropping the host into each. It raised in me ideas about ‘purity’ and ‘alienation’ and I knew I would write a poem about it. That’s always been the case with my ‘process’ of writing – waiting and hoping, keeping alert for the moment. It’s also why I can go a long time without writing anything.
Your poems reference myth, humanity, religion. Why is this the case? What are your thoughts on these issues that you feel the need to write poetry?
I think the language of poetry has always been primarily mythic and archetypal (e.g. Gilgamesh, the Psalms, Homer, Virgil, Dante) – concerned with the great patterns of human existence – our relationship with the cosmos, with God or not-God, with exploring whether there is meaning in life, whether there is an afterlife, or a suprapersonal dimension, and the relationship between inevitable phenomena such as love and death to the human condition. Which is not to say that poetry can’t do other things; but at its fons et origo [source and origin] I believe it has a direct mythic pressure. This is why I tend towards the type of poetry I do (both to read and to write). I do have a line of clergymen in my ancestry, Church of Ireland ministers, and perhaps this has seeped down through the genes!
A family interest?
My mother was interested in spiritualism, and maybe this has had something to do with it too. But it matters to me what I think about the nature of existence – my view keeps on changing – and I tend to express this through mythic stories or through characters, usually historical ones, that voice my concerns.
Can you give an example?
I wrote a poem about St Symeon Stylites, who spent thirty years on top of a tall pillar in the middle of the Syrian desert. His aim was to get away from the earth – literally and metaphysically – to achieve a sort of purity that would take him to the side of God. Paradoxically, his hermitic feat attracted thousands of followers, who would camp out around his pillar, like a sort of Woodstock festival. That’s the sort of character that interests me; someone who was passionate, dedicated, explorative, and possibly misguided; and he may have been a failure in his own terms, although possibly not to the crowds who shouted up prayers for him to relay to God or who asked for
What would you say are your stylistic hallmarks?
This is a tricky one. It’s hard to separate out style from the content. I suppose, superficially, I would stray into the formal spectrum – metre, half-rhymes, etc – but I write a sufficient amount of free verse to even things up. My rule of thumb, which I tell creative writing students, is that the reader has to be convinced that a poem has been written with a great, deliberate guiding intelligence behind it, whether it’s formal or free verse. That’s the only thing that counts: the emotional and imaginative pressure and integrity in a poem.
What was your most challenging poem to complete?
This is an easy one! It’s the poem that I’m still working on, and which has kept me going for seventeen years. It’s a long meditative four-part poem inspired by the Book of Kells and it involves my spiritual and aesthetic take on life; and because that keeps changing, the poem keeps getting not finished.
Tell me a little about your latest book In Loco Parentis, for which you won the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize 2016?
What was your motivation and intention behind writing these pieces?
In Loco Parentis came as a complete surprise. A couple of summers ago I was thinking about my time at boarding school, and how intense it was, and what a complete, self-contained world it was, and how the journey from a sheltered, shy 13-year-old to an 18-year-old ready to face the big bad world outside was like a psychological and emotional odyssey.
“I think the language of poetry has always been primarily mythic and archetypal – concerned with the great patterns of human existence –”
You’re also a mentor. What do you teach your mentees? What pertinent advice do you give to all of them despite their undoubtedly diverse objectives as poets?
I don’t really ‘teach’, at all. I listen and try to understand the motivation of each mentee, and what makes his or her world unique to them. That’s the starting point for their poems. A lot of poets sit on a mound of buried personal dramas but get lured away by the sirens of an otherness which might be more exotic, but isn’t their world. That can be the problem with powerful exemplars: if you are bowled over by the poems of Seamus Heaney, say, then you can find yourself writing about childhood memories in a Heaney-esque way, whereas your background, experience and linguistic flare might be more suited to something more conceptual or philosophical. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and many poets, when starting out, show the influence of a past master.
They’re seeking a ‘voice’.
The idea of finding your ‘voice’ is commonplace, and I don’t care for the word ‘voice’, and I also think poets can get too hung up about it; I would say it’s the natural emergence of a poetic personality, the confidence that your own unique perspective and world-view has value, even if it doesn’t dazzle like Dante’s or Eliot’s. When the poetic police are checking fingerprints, they want to find yours, not Heaney’s.
What advice would you then impart to other writers or poets?
My advice to writers would be to identify what you value most in life and match it with your linguistic abilities and not with the type of writing you wish you could write. It may be that A.A. Milne wanted to write like Wordsworth, but in the event he wrote one of the most influential books ever written. The problem most writers have is identifying their strengths and limits and concentrating on those, as well as with what moves them most; sometimes the latter may seem too trivial and so they stray into realms that don’t really touch them.
Finish the line: if there wasn’t any poetry…
I’d like to adopt a Zen koan approach to this one: ‘If there wasn’t any poetry, there would be
The Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize was established to commemorate the life and work of the late Vincent Buckley; poet, critic and Professor of English at The University of Melbourne. It is a biennial award that is offered alternately to enable an Australian poet to visit Ireland and to facilitate the visit of an Irish poet to Melbourne. The Prize, which has been made available through generous donations from family and friends of Vincent Buckley, provides the recipient with a return airfare, and a contribution towards living expenses. Learn more.