Introduction to poems in Oxford Poets’ Anthology 2007

‘Science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful,’ wrote Valéry. ‘The rest is literature.’ There is at least the rhythm of that thought in my poem ‘The mathematician’. I wanted to write something of how it feels to do science (science really wants to be maths, it seems to me), working under that historical assumption that there is an independent reality ‘out there’ to discover. But while science may look into the world with senses we do not have, the mind still seeks to understand what it is already enmeshed in – and what is ‘out there’, what is ‘other’, is sought like a beloved.

Much of what I write is dialogue, direct or implied. This might be anything from the long tradition of ‘soul’ talking with ‘body’ to self talking to itself, as perhaps in a mirror, or with other poets and with their addressees (in ‘Do I still think of you?’, the dialogue is with Hopkins’s god as addressed in ‘God’s grandeur’). This is why I sometimes write poems in two parts – as in the two sonnet-pairs here. It’s a sort of dialectic process – one part taking one view, the other another, trying to move from contradiction to synthesis or, perhaps, action. I’m thinking of Rilke’s ‘stretch your practised powers till they reach between two contradictions’, and also of Bakhtin’s ‘we never speak in a vacuum’.

Perhaps in reaction to experimental science – or augmented by it – I’m interested in techniques that encourage ‘random’, non-logically obtained first drafts (although Lakoff would say that, because of metaphor, a poem is still a rational being). Though I don’t tend to use other people’s work or found texts, the poem ‘Do I still think of you?’ does mix my words with those of Hopkins. In other poems, such as ‘A century of ravens in flight’, I’ve used collage to get behind the surface of language and to generate a rich texture which can be used to serve the lyric impulse. Whether one decides to argue for a ‘use’ for poetry or not, I still think of it as spell, as incantation. To return to Rilke, poetry must ‘make a temple deep inside our hearing’. He does not say in our ‘ear’ but in our ‘hearing’ which is a mindful, thinking, emotive, body-centred activity, rather than something more passive.