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Interview: Kevin Gardner, lecturer, anthologist

12 April 2024

‘I’m inspired by writing that exhibits unexpected moments of pleasure’

I think it must have been the aural qualities of language that made me dedicate my life to the written word. I was drawn to sound before sense. Indeed, from an early age, I loved nonsense, doggerel, and language play.

I remember my mother reading to me “The Owl and the Pussycat”, and stories and verses by A. A. Milne, and my father quoting snatches of Ogden Nash and incessantly working puns into his conversation. Perhaps it was his punning that first made me conscious of the rich possibilities in poetry of overlapping meanings.

I’m a professor at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, and I’ve taught there since 1995. I teach a wide variety of courses in British literature, but I was hired for my research specialty in the Restoration and the early 18th century. This remains one of my favourite subjects to teach — Dryden, Swift, Pope, Congreve, Gay.

My favourite of all is Alexander Pope. People have forgotten how to read Pope and why we should read him, but there are hardly any more relevant poems for our age than his Imitations of Horace.

I’m inspired by writing that exhibits unexpected moments of pleasure, and it’s often startling where these passages of extraordinary craftmanship appear. I’ve found such pleasure everywhere: in the density of a couplet in Pope’s Dunciad, in the relentlessly funny denunciation of Munich gluttony in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, in the tour-de-force whirlwind opening of John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy. . .

Editing anthologies is a kind of work that’s been easier to perform these past nine years, while serving as department chair, than the sorts of scholarly writing that occupied me before moving into academic administration — perhaps because editing involves a less sustained concentration of effort. I’ve especially benefited from the opportunity to co-edit anthologies; a co-editor will keep you motivated and active, when you might be tempted to put a project on hold, and it’s great having someone with whom you can share ideas, laughter, and frustrations.

I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with John Greening on two anthologiesContraflow: Lines of Englishness, 1922-2022, and Hollow Palaces: An anthology of modern country house poems — and with Cameron Self on Before the Dreadful Daylight Starts: An anthology of Norfolk poetry.

Building Jerusalem: Elegies on parish churches was my first and solo anthology. Everyone knows the famous Larkin poem “Church Going”, but I noticed that Larkin was not the only, nor the first, to write elegiacally about abandoned churches as a way of addressing the decline of faith and the attenuation of Christianity in the post-war era.

I’ve discovered dozens more such poems that I’d have loved to have included, had I only found them in time. Just saying, in case anyone wants me to do a second edition. My publisher, Robin Baird-Smith, wrote me when the book was released: “If I were to have chiselled on my tombstone the top ten books that I have published, this would certainly be one.”

My path to church elegies came through Betjeman. It was his honest struggle with faith that I found so interesting. I was also curious about how a poet became one of the most famous and influential figures of the 20th century, in Britain at least. Poets tend to be on the fringes of things; they’re generally anonymous figures. But can you imagine the stir if Betjeman were spotted on the Tube?

So there was much I wanted to say about Betjeman: first, to introduce him to American readers, since he is so little known on this side of the pond; second, to analyse for UK readers his particular kind of Englishness, which I think is much more nuanced and complicated than is generally acknowledged. And, third, to explore the various manifestations of his religious life, which could fluctuate considerably. In the end, I think his faith and his Englishness are intertwined and inseparable. You can see this in his magnificent film about Norfolk, A Passion for Churches.

I first met John Greening when I was compiling Building Jerusalem. He contributed two church elegies to my anthology. Later, I invited him to Baylor to give a lecture and reading, and it was then that we hit on the idea of an anthology of 20th-century country-house poetry. Everyone knows the usual 17th-century masterpieces, but were there modern instances of the genre? The Downton craze was still lingering; so we thought there might be an audience. Never would we have guessed we’d turn up well over 200 specimens.

As the project was winding down, we were both thinking about another joint project, as it had been so enjoyable and productive to work together. That’s when the idea developed of me selecting his own poetry, for an American press. As Hollow Palaces was going to press, we were already hard at work on The Interpretation of Owls: Selected poems 1977-2021.

It was a bit unnerving for both of us at first, as living poets are usually responsible for their own selected editions; but it was important to John that an American decide which of his poems were going to speak most clearly to American readers. That kept us together for a third project, Contraflow, which explores the very fraught and difficult topic of Englishness.

I’m grateful for the friendship that has developed between us, and for what I have learned about contemporary British poetry through my collaboration with John. I’ve met a great number of poets through him, and I’m now reviewing contemporary poetry collections.

I wasn’t a cradle Episcopalian, but have been now for 25 years. I think there is a degree of Anglophilia there, but also my love of literary language has always drawn me to the Book of Common Prayer. Unlike Betjeman, who was drawn to the ornate rituals of Anglo-Catholicism, I prefer an unadorned Prayer Book liturgy. There is such extraordinary beauty and uncomplicated theology in the BCP.

Christianity’s on the decline in most of the US. Ours is probably a generation or two behind that experienced in post-war Europe, but it’s happening. Yet while lovely old mainline churches are withering and closing, non-denominational congregations, with their praise bands and politicised messages, continue to prosper. I call them “mushroom churches”, because they seem to pop up overnight along the highways.

I grew up in coastal Texas, in a sort of company town that sprang up near a large industrial plant where my father worked as a research chemist. The whole town was laid out by a pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright, on reclaimed swampland filled with massive trees draped with Spanish moss. It was a surreal sort of cretaceous landscape, filled with mid-century architecture and bordered by miles of nightmarish chemical-industrial works.

Though this was a new town, my family have been in Texas since 1835. Two of my great-great-great-grandfathers immigrated here before it was even a republic; so that makes me a sixth-generation Texan. My wife and I raised our one child, a seventh-generation Texan, here. He lives near Austin, and is engaged to be married later this year.

I’m happiest spending time with my wife, doing ordinary things.

I’ve been postponing for too long a book on Alexander Pope. I’m completing my sentence as department chair this summer, and I hope I’ll have the time, energy, and inspiration to write that book in the coming months.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Simon Knott, because who knows the history of churches and the significance of their treasures better than he?


Professor Kevin Gardner was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

His forthcoming book, At the Garden’s Dark Edge: Selected poems of Anthony Thwaite, is to be published by Baylor University Press later this year.

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