An Interview With Ron Price: His Poetry from 1992 to 1999
Mar 30, 2010
I understand that just last month, in April 1999, you taught your last class as a full-time professional teacher. Now that you are able to give yourself more fully to the academic and writing life, I'd like to start off with a question involving Thomas Carlyle(1795-1881), a Scottish philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, historian, and teacher during the Victorian Era. He said that "no great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men." What are your views on this concept?
One can not ignore the role of great men and great women but, if anything, my poetry is a testimony to the contribution of the great as well as the not-so-great. One of the poems in this collection, a collection I have entitled Cascading Down after “15 small pools of water in the centre of the two sets of stairs leading from the Entrance Plaza to Terrace one.”(Baha’i Canada, Baha, BE 156, p.5), answers this question in part. I refer you to that poem: “At Speed and in the Darkness Before the Dawn” in which I have drawn heavily on J. Harrison’s book The Common People. Obviously, Baha’i history has great souls. That history is a documentary to them; but it is also a history of the ordinarily ordinary and a greatness that comes from the humble and the unrecognised. My poetry is as much a tribute to this latter category, as the former. I see myself, in some ways, as a symbol of the ordinary.
I: Is there much in your poetry about your family history and its relationship with the Baha'i Faith?
P: The first two poems in the collection of poetry I sent to the World Centre were written in the first week of September 1992. They were addressed to my mother who passed away in 1978. She started investigating the Baha’i Faith in 1953. One of the poems in this collection was inspired by my grandfather’s autobiography, A.J. Cornfield’s Story, about his early life from 1872 to 1901. I refer you to this poem: “1953: A Turning Point in History” to partly answer this question. There are, of course, many other poems that involve my family history. It is impossible to separate family history from one’s autobiography, whether that autobiography is poetic narrative or simple narrative prose. I know nothing at all of my family history before 1872 and so, as yet, there is no poetry about it. Something may come up that is based on history in Wales, England and France. Time will tell. We could hold a separate interview on the influences of family; I have referred to some of them in the first eleven interviews. But I think this is enough for now.
I: How do you see your months and years ahead away from full-time work?
P: I see my future writing experience somewhat like the way the writer Doris Lessing saw hers over her writing life. For her, writing was a self-imposed exile; writing was what always presented itself as a better possibility from the range of options in day-to-day life. It was her preferred activity. As she put it: “it's what I do. I naturally turn to it, always. I'm usually thinking about what I'm writing. In addition, I don't have a great range of other interests for one reason or another. Let's put it like that.” Now that I am 55 and am tired of my employment, career and the range of social activity that has occupied me for at least four decades, I hope to give myself up to an activity that has been brewing at the surface of my life for years, nearly twenty if not as many as forty. This interview is a discussion in the main of: (i) the first seven years of my serious writing, writing that took place in the last years of my FT paid-employment, with (ii) some general thoughts on what is to come in the years of my retirement. It will take me several more years to get out of the world of PT work and casual-volunteer work but, after that, I will be able to engage myself fully in writing and reading, editing and research, independent scholarship and study, as well as, perhaps, online journalism and a new literary form known as blogging.
I: Have you written many poems about specific contemporary events in the political, social, economic and historical worlds?
P: Only very occasionally. I think there are a number of complex interacting factors that, for various reasons, make writing poetry about “the news” difficult. There is something about “the news” that has an air of fantasy, of make-believe, about it. There is also the problem of making sense of the recent past. Kosovo or East Timor are good examples, to chose two from a potential multitude. You really have to give the issue a great deal of time to unravel the complexity. There is just so much going on in the world: politically, economically, scientifically, inter alia, that the mind is on overload. Getting a precise knowledge of many things seems just about impossible except for the specialist.
There is no cultural and classical consensus any more and there hasn’t been, perhaps since the beginning of the Formative Age in 1921, perhaps since the 1950’s and the onset of postmodernism; so what the individual gets is an enormous plethora of opinions, a pastiche, incoherence, with little sense of overview. As the French sociologist/philosopher Jean Baudrillard puts it: it has became very difficult to plot reality, or even get a sense of who you are. Any poems I do write in this area of social analysis tends to be ‘big picture’, ‘whole culture’, ‘wide angle’ stuff.
In one of Robert Penn Warren’s essays he writes about his belief, a belief which persisted throughout his creative life, in the necessary tension between the ideal and the real, the abstract and the relative. It was what he called the poetics of (im)purity. There are all sorts of different kinds, different forms, of poetry, Warren says. But the central artistic fact in the writing of poetry is conditioned by the flux of the poet’s immediate time and environment. I could say more about the influence of Warren on my writing. Warren's first volume of poetry, Thirty-Six Poems, was published in 1936 just as the american Bahá'í community began to organize the plan that would begin in April 1937. Two months before the start of that Seven Year Plan(1937-1944), in February 1937, in The American Review, Warren published an essay entitled The Reading of Modern Poetry that proposed to explore "the relation of modern poetry to its audience-if an audience exists.” I’ll tell you more of this alter in the interview if it seems timely and relevant to the interview.
I: Do you think the fact that your poetry deals with the big picture and not with specific social problems is partly a reflection of the nature of your religion?
P: Unquestionably! The problems in the world possess an immense complexity. The Baha’i Faith offers helpful perspectives on many of the problems. But the Baha’is are not pretentious enough, or ignorant enough, to think they have the answer to all the world’s problems. Any Baha’i who makes such a claim is really a simpleton and just not aware of the complexity of things, or brings to the issues a mind that has grown up on what Bahiyyih Nakjavani calls ‘Baha’i Fundamentalism.’ They have no idea of “what a massive dose of truth”, as ‘Abdu’l-Baha puts it, which “must be administered to heal this chronic old disease. The answers, the perspectives, the Bahá’í Faith bring to many issues, is gradually coming to be seen as relevant by the wider community. But it is going to take a few more years, perhaps decades. I’m really not sure.
Yes, my poetry approaches the world and its problems obliquely, sensitively, with some understanding but also, I like to think, with a degree of humility in the face of the immense complexity of the problems. But I certainly don’t think either I or my religion have the answer to all the thorny and difficult problems bedevilling the world. Give the chaos and confusion besetting the global community an increase in magnitude, though, and the Bahá'í approaches will be seen as more and more timely.
I: I understand you have just retired from teaching. What is the experience like thusfar?
P: Yes I’ve had over five weeks thusfar, what you might call the honeymoon period of retirement. The first thing I notice is that I’ve slowed down. I wrote a poem this morning about the hibiscus. It is entitled Flame Out. I will not read it or quote from it here, but this poem would not have been written under normal circumstances because I needed to be in low gear, enough to stop and have a good look, especially standing out in the rain trying to write the poem. But I had lots of time. I get a good forty minutes of brisk walking in every day. I’ve never been able to do that before. I’m also getting to know my wife again after years of running past her on my way to work, meetings, or something that I had to do. We are also getting ready to move to Tasmania so I’m useful, at least some of the time, around the house in preparation for the departure.
I: How does your sense of humour influence the content or form of your poetry?
P: I’ve never thought of my poetry as particularly funny, as humorous, but your question is intriguing and there is much I could say in response to this question. I became conscious of my sense of humour when I was successful in applying for a job as a probation officer in 1979 at the age of 35. I was told by the panel chairman afterwards that one of the reasons I got the job was my sense of humour. I had been in Australia for eight years at the time. Humour and irony are at the core of the Australian way of life.
Speaking more generally, I have come to appreciate Kafka’s observation that “A joke is the tombstone of a feeling”, probably because it implies that humour is a healing mechanism and that a joke is sort of a transcendent achievement. You know, “we’ll be able to look back and laugh at this one of these days”. Underneath the humor there’s often an injury of some sort. We all know humor can be cruel. When I think of my poetry, as far as humor is concerned, I think that humour is more and more implicit in my work but, as I say, I'm not conscious of it overtly.
The suffering, either from loss of people through separations due to foolish misunderstandings, violence, circumstances, political dynamics, catastrophes, illness or just the flow of life, and the mutual witnessing of how our precious world is in a state of crisis, or simply watching our childhood world drift farther and farther away as we view it from our little rowboat lives----these sufferings create a bonding matrix that reverberates whenever I write poetry and speak. Sorrow and humor get braided together, along with pity, grief, passionate idealism and who knows what else. How this suffering gets reflected in the poetry, technically, is probably in the tone, through various devices, such as exaggeration, wit, dialect or surprising diction in certain contexts and so on.
To return to that American poet, novelist, literary critic and one of the founders of a movement in poetry entitled New Criticism, Robert Penn Warren(1905-1989) for the moment—Warren by 1937 was convinced that opposite elements like poetic and unpoetic diction, logical and emotional statement, among other polar opposites, coexist in the best poetry of all ages, from Shakespeare to Wordsworth to Eliot. The unity which a poet attempts to attain is not an easily won unity, but one wrested from recalcitrant and discordant materials and attained only in terms of a poet’s total intention. Warren draws on the poet Samuel Coleridge(1772-1834) who saw the poet’s imagination at work 'in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.’ Coleridge is also credited by many critics with the very idea of conversational poetry, the idea of utilizing common, everyday language to express profound poetic images and ideas. Wordsworth became famous using this style and it is a crucial part of mine.
I: Spike Milligan, a great humorist, said his father told him that he would rather tell stories about himself that were exciting but a lie, than tell him stories that were boring but true. For some of us the incurable romantic never dies. Is there any of this romanticism in your poetry?
P: My mother used to say to me, I remember, back in the early 1960s before I went pioneering, that the Baha’i Faith was a good religion for me because of the strong element of the theatre in its framework of activities. The social dimension of life inevitably involves a certain theatricality. As I said, too, in my introduction to Roger White’s book of poetry, Occasions of Grace, there is in the Baha’i ethos, at least there is for me, a strong element of the cry of all Romantic artists since the industrial revolution: I don’t want comfort; I want God; I want poetry; I want real danger; I want freedom; I want goodness; I want sin. Well, I’m not so sure about the real danger any more and I do like my bourgeois comforts. So I suppose I’m just a part Romantic on my somewhat attenuated terms.
I used to tell my son bedtime stories, mostly madeup with truths as I saw them imbedded. That way I got in the excitement, the morals and the sense of adventure all at once. But that was over a dozen years ago now and you would have to ask my son how sucessful I really was. A boring bedtime story, though, is really not on. If your stories are boring you don't get invited to be the storyteller at bedtime. And you don’t get invited to be a performance poet.
I: Poets try to do many things with language. They try to find a language equal to the task of apprehending and articulating the world. The words of this language rely on the poet's knowledge of their inner-resonances, their feel, their heft and their complex reverberations when placed in context with other words, the intimate associations they have forged in imagination and memory, their psychological and emotional implications, their symbolic and metaphorical potential, their particular temperature and texture and taste. This is more than the definition of connotation ordinarily allows. It is to treat words as intricate, adaptable organisms that take sustenance from what surrounds them in order to add again—to answer back with their own contributory lives—to the infinite life of their surroundings. They are their surroundings, and their surroundings are them, in the normal give-and-take of vibrant, responsive substances. That was a mouthful. Would you like to comment?
P: And I might add: The great aim is of a poet, of this poet, is accurate, precise and definite description. The first thing is to recognise how extraordinarily difficult this is. It is no mere matter of carefulness: you have to use language, and language is by its very nature a communal thing; that is, it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise—that which is common to you, me and everybody. But each man sees a little differently and to get out clearly and exactly what the poet does see, he must have a terrific struggle with language…Language has its own special nature, its own conventions and communal ideas. It is only by a concentrated effort of the mind that you can hold it fixed to your own purpose. Eliot and Pound instead of stating what they meant plainly and simply made their poetry opaque with irony and obscure allusions. I’m not into that. I want to clarity for myselfand my readers—as far as I am able.
I: Could you comment on the content of your poetry?
P: It is sometimes said that the greatest writers are those who have the ability to talk and write about the greatest range of human experience and knowledge in the most versatile way. I’ve always found Clive James is a good example for me in this respect. He is both erudite and humorous—his range is incredible. People like James are polymaths and polyglots. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has written about what he calls “the necessary qualification of comprehensive knowledge.” James may be a good example of what ‘‘Abdu’l-Bahá is referring to. These people are few and far-between.
He typifies, for me, a style, a register, a brand with its self-parody and its brilliant inventiveness. I also have a certain style or register and have since the outset of my writing more than 25 years ago. But my range is limited and when it is extensive it is only on the surface. I just don’t have that capacity for comprehensive knowledge. I never have. I knew this early in life; I knew that I had to work hard to achieve aht little I could academically.
My more optimistic muse tells me I'm in the knowledge game, though, for the long haul. I show no signs of letting up and now that I've retired from full time work--the sky and the work is the limit! I am aware that only the best writers are capable of the "terrific struggle" it takes to precisely describe—that is, re-name—the world. As T. E. Hulme says that there are two things that a poet requires; firstly, there is the particular faculty of mind to see things as they really are and apart from the conventional ways in which one has been trained to see them. This is in itself a rare quality in a human consciousness and its visual-perceptual acuity. Secondly, Hulme emphasizes the need for a concentrated state of mind, a grip over oneself which is necessary in the actual expression of what one sees."
I: The poet is still the singular, passionate observer we need in order to translate the world into penetrating, accurate language that somehow makes reality available to our minds in a way in which experience alone cannot thoroughly provide. This sense of discovery, of locating and naming the distinct quality of things--is this what readers can find in your poetry?
P: There is more than description in my work. I like to see my work as a bestowal of being, a making-it-clear-to-the-mind, manifesting something without robbing it of its inherent mystery and essence. Again and again I feel I am making an effort to translate what I perceive into precise revelatory language. I try to define the essence of actions and things, nail them down with meticulous, unremitting care. They may be familiar, but now they are also designated clearly, accounted for to the language-requiring mind. In poem after poem I try to display depth and diversity, perceptual awareness and the power of her observation.
I: Tell us more about the process of writing for you, poetry or prose.
P: Harold Pinter describes the process in relation to writing plays, but what he says is certainly relevant to the process as I experience it. He says it's a strange moment, the moment of creating which up to that moment had no existence on paper. What follows, he says, is often fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. My medications keep any hallucinatory experience to a minimum. I like it that way.
“The author's position,” Pinter continues, “is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by his creation. The process resists him; it is not easy to live with; it is impossible to define. You certainly can't dictate to the process. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with the words, cat and mouse, blind man's buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that you have words, flesh and blood stuff on your hands, words with will and an individual sensibility of their own made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.” I like the way Pinter puts it, although in my case I can rewrite what I have written when and if I want.
I: When did you first feel what Ezra Pound called "the impulse" to write?
P: I have dealt with this question in other interviews so I will be brief here. I was a student from 1949 to 1967 and the impulse to write had an external source in "the teacher." From 1967 to 1999 I was the teacher and writing was part of my profession. In the last decade of my life as a teacher the desire to write increased from year to year and with retirement in 1999 I was able to give vent to that 'impulse' as Pound called it.
The impulse to write, for me, derives to some extent, from the kind of poetic language that literally lifts things into consciousness, that delicate seam of words—visionary, resonant, defining—that exists between reality and the mind, that almost seems to join the two in a moment of insight, until subject and object for once seem to merge, to become one. The exercise is quite subtle, sometimes quite emotional and extraordinary, epiphanic and exists on a continuum with the other end in drudgery,
I: How did being born into a war-torn world affect your writings later on?
P: My international travel agents were Hitler and Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s. There were others but I will name these two men because your question involves a war-torn world. Being one of 2.3 billion people in the world in 1944 and one the 2 billion who were largely distant from the military exercise made an impression on me and my life that I describe in my autobiography. I am now working on the second edition of that memoir as it is more properly called. I deal with your question in that second edition and future editions should they come along later. The answer to your question is quite complex and I invite you to have a read of that edition at some future time. In addition to my own little story of bad luck, there were plenty of others even among those like me who were distant from the action. I'm still amazed by all the vileness and stupidity I witnessed in my life both in the films and television programs about that war and subsequent wars in the next half century.
I: In terms of the propagation and perpetuation of poetry, how important are readings? nowadays?
P: I think they are important. Without them, poets and poetry would be pretty nearly invisible in this country. In the 1990s I took part in several poetry readings. By the time of my retirement in 1999 I took little interest in public display. I'd had enough of it in 30 years as a teacher. I became anxious to explore the potential of the internet where I had had a site for more than two years. I was interested in propagation and perpetuation of poetry in different ways than I had experienced in the past.
I: What happens now to Ron Price and his writing?
P: He finishes his teaching career in the next two months, collects his superannuation payout, retires to some part-time and casual work and away from extensive social activity and obligation, probably in some rural town in Tasmania and finds out what this writing business is all about. But more importantly than the external journey of place and time is the consciousness that to be alive and to know it—a seemingly simple thing—is my not-so-secret program. To be awake and cognisant of even a fraction of an ordinary day, which is also a fraction of eternity, cannot be so easily assumed. It is not always present. It comes and goes.
I: Thanks Ron. I wish you well and a long and happy retirement.
P: Thanks. Take care; perhaps we'll meet again after I am fully ensconed on the world of writing.
14 May 1999: One month after retirement form FT employment. All marking was complete and my official retirement began on 23/7/'99.