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Interview: Hilary Davies, poet and teacher

06 January 2017

‘A lot of poets don’t read novels. They take too long to say what they want to say’

The poetry world is very diverse. Although, ultimately, writing re­­mains an intensely private experi­ence, there are real careers for poets now: chairs of creative writing, creative-writing courses, judging competitions — something un­­thinkable 50 years ago. There are a great many prizes, and an in­or­dinate number of outlets: festivals, readings, blogs, centres all over the country. On one level, that’s ex­­tremely healthy, but sometimes quality is sacrificed for quantity.


I recently published my fourth collection of poetry, Exile and the Kingdom. Its central theme is our pilgrimage through life.


They cover my own journey through grief after the death of my husband, the poet Sebastian Barker; the landscape of the Lea Valley in London, where I live; the Rhine river as a metaphor for the history of Europe, in all its glory and ter­rors; and, finally, the pilgrimage of faith, so often regarded as easy by those who don’t go on it. In reality, it’s a hard and sometimes imposs­ibly demanding road. These are the exiles and the kingdoms of the title.


The reader I have in mind is anyone who loves how language structures itself into poetry, and who also believes that this can say something redemptive about the human condi­tion.


I chose not to go down the road of being a career poet. I didn’t want my survival to depend on having to write things, because you inevitably write things that are not of the best. You’d take commissions that would alter the way you approach your writing. I wanted to be completely independent.


I chose to teach instead. And I love teaching, love being with young people. I’m the child, niece, and grandchild of teachers; so this cul­ture has always surrounded me. I even used to write lessons for my teddy bears.


I began teaching English as a for­eign language in Paris, 35 years ago; and, for several decades, I taught French and German at St Paul’s Girls’ School, in Hammersmith, where I eventually became Head of Languages. For the past four years, I was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow in the graduate programme at King’s College, London, offering tutorials on good academic writing. I work there freelance now, giving training seminars to Ph.D. students of all disciplines.


Much of my poetry is a spiritual ex­­ploration, and more and more so over the years. This, of course, covers every aspect of life: those we love as intimates or as friends, our relationship to the natural world, man’s historical behaviour in it . . . how we wish to live our lives, and how all this relates to faith in a personal God.


I was baptised in the Church in Wales, but my parents were agnostic at that point, though they returned to Anglicanism later. I was taught the Bible, largely as literature, at school, where we also sang a daily hymn and had readings from the scriptures. But I remained very ig­­norant of theology and liturgy until I went to Oxford.


What I really converted from was French existentialism, which I thought was really cool in my teens. I studied Jean-Paul Sartre as a special subject at Oxford, and fell out of love with him just as I was coming into contact with Catholics for the first time. I was taught by the former Jesuit priest Peter Hebble­thwaite, who had one of the sharpest minds I ever met. Later, in Paris, I had a conversion experience, and was received into the Roman Cath­olic Church in 1986.


Later still, I married Sebastian, shortly after he also, independently, converted; so this spiritual trajectory has been with me all my adult life. Some poets are more personal and confessional than others, but they’re always writing out of their life experience; so the fact that I’m a Catholic influences what I choose to write about. And my writing infuses my faith: they bind themselves more tightly over time, because the faith and the poetry mature — one hopes.


I think now that Sartre had a silly, empty philosophy. You define your­self in life by what you are not, as well as what you are; the two are inextricable. Camus is different. His last work is also called Exile and the Kingdom, and moves towards some sort of redemption, even if not Chris­­tian redemption.


I’ve only just finished a book; so there has to be a fallow period while one puts things in the lumber room. But I’m reading a great deal about time: scientific and numinous time, horizontal and vertical time, the time of man and the time of God.


What spiritual time is I’m trying to think about, because I don’t know yet. There’s the cyclical time of the seasons, which links the earthly with the eternal. But, once Christ comes, the after can never be the same as before; so the notion of time as purely cyclical doesn’t quite work, either.


Europe is my home. I read French and German at Oxford, and I’ve taught these two languages and cultures all my professional life. I’ve been going to these countries reg­ularly for 45 years; they’re an integ­ral part of who I am. I speak Italian, having taught myself when I was 12, and I read Spanish tolerably well. I’ve also travelled in the former Soviet Union, Lithuania, Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Greece, where my husband restored a small farmer’s house in the Peloponnese. As Head of Languages, I also intro­duced Mandarin as a major foreign language into my school curriculum.


Brexit made me angry. It was the appallingly low level of public dis­course about it on all sides, the dis­information, also on all sides, the failure to identify correctly what, and who, is responsible for the eco­nomic situation, and the fact that the general public will now have to bear the consequences of one or two individuals’ personal ambition and lack of judgement.


It’s difficult to say what the con­sequences will be, but there’s a fortress mentality resurfacing. In America, too: nation states less friendly to their neighbours, and rising general uninterest in knowing how the other person thinks. Our shared links have been forgotten before, and we cut our ties with certain kinds of European life, especially Catholicism. At worst, it could lead to hostility: it has hap­pened before.


Many people don’t take either Church very seriously, but both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches have a part to play be­­cause they are both Catholic, Churches for the world. They need to take an ethical stand against ideas that deny other people basic human rights, or treat them as objects of hatred.


If the Church doesn’t take a stand now, it may be criticised later. We have precedents for that, too. It has to be realistic, but it can send an ethical message. That is one of its great purposes.


Speaking, communicating, and teaching in other languages, even being totally fluent in them, is one thing. To have the rhythms, echoes, harmonies, and connotations in one’s mind subconsciously, as you do with your mother tongue, is quite another. So, no, I don’t com­pose in any language other than my own, which is in my blood. The European poets who have written in two languages can be named on the fingers of one hand. I think the case is very different in countries where children grow up effectively bi­­lingual, such as the Caribbean, Africa, or India, but the argument from mother tongue still pertains. It is just that they have two of them.


But I do a good deal of translating, and I’ve taught the art and craft of it. Translating literature and poetry is completely necessary — think of the Bible — but there’s no such thing as a perfect match between two languages. That doesn’t mean translation shouldn’t be attempted. It’s a fascinating lesson in one’s own language, always.


My first experience of God was as a child of about nine, in the Brecon Beacon mountains of South Wales. I was walking with my parents, and had dropped behind them to listen and whistle into the wind. And the mountains suddenly spoke back to me in a language I could hear, but not understand.


My husband, my mother and father, and certain very important indi­viduals have been the greatest in­­fluences on my life. And books.


There have been many influences, but particularly important have been Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, David Jones, George Barker, David Gascoyne, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Traherne, W. S. Graham . . . Dylan Thomas. Of the French poets, Baudelaire and Apollinaire, the poetry of Pascal’s Pensées. Of the German-speaking poets, Rilke, Hof­mannsthal, Trakl, Goethe, and Schiller.


New Year isn’t very important to me, but the turning of the seasons and Christmas is. I celebrated this year with my close family, who have German relatives; so it was to be a German Christmas. They do it beau­­tifully.


I’m happiest when I’m working, and seeing my friends and family.


Human hope, and faith in common decency give me hope for the future.


I pray that I may achieve a better understanding of God. That doesn’t mean that I seek to understand him: merely that my life should demon­strate a better understanding.


If I was locked in a church with anyone as my companion for a few hours, I’d choose Coleridge, and my husband.


Hilary Davies was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Exile and the Kingdom is pub­lished by Enitharmon Press at £9.99. www.enitharmon.co.uk

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