A poet of rare lyric intensity - Oxford Companion to English Literature
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About David Constantine
“Poetry now, every bit as much as in the Romantic age, is a utopian demonstration, by aesthetic means, of what true freedom would be like. It engages us to imagine something better than what at present we are afflicted with; it helps keep hope alive; it incites us to make more radical demands. And poetry does that out of the enjoyment of its own autonomy, which it is duty-bound not to forfeit.” These fine words, exalted with the fervour of Shelley, were written by David Constantine, a scholar-poet whose considerable poetic achievement mysteriously wants the wider appreciation it deserves, considering its emotional range, its mastery of formal and linguistic variety, its lyrical intensity and disarming confessional intimacy, these all finely attuned by a keenly attentive ear. It is contemporary poetry which unfashionably, and unexpectedly perhaps, makes frequent use of forms, ideas and associations buried deep in a grand European poetic tradition. Among Constantine’s influences are not just Homer and Dante, but Blake and Yeats, and the German Romantic poet Holderlin, a favourite of Brahms and Richard Strauss, whose work he has translated and written about as an academic. Indeed, he was until recently the co-editor of the literary journal Modern Poetry in Translation, and his own translations of European poets and playwrights have won him high praise and literary prizes both at home and abroad.
He was born in 1944 in Salford, Lancashire, an urban landscape of factories, red brick terraces and mizzle-grey skies, the Lowry backdrop to his childhood with a nimbus of “visionary dreariness” quite particular to that part of England. Some of his poems home in on this familiar prehistory and its memorable characters, while others range across the mysterious mythical world of faraway Greece, inspired by epiphanies beneath the clanging skies above the Aegean. What two worlds could be more different? Yet Constantine fuses the compressed stoical grit of the one with the lyrical flexibility of the other to create an intense poetic voice, and forge a personal style, often rich with Yeatsian ornament, and always measured in each perfectly judged peroration. He is a maker of poems, a craftsman as well as messenger, one whose wrought invention is exquisitely entwined with his thought intention. Much contemporary poetry stands against the marmoreal grandeur of canonical verse, but many of Constantine’s poems arrive freighted with authority, and seem to seek and achieve unusually memorable expression, momentary illuminations which exalt the ephemeral and quotidian in the lofty aesthetic realm of permanence in art. Even a met flirtatious glance in the Bodleian library whelms him in that Wagnerian ‘Sehnsucht’ which, however exaggerated in retrospect, is so supremely significant at the time:
Nothing is comparable,
Nothing so serious has been or will be again.
A novelist and award-winning short story writer (‘Tea at the Midland’ is a classic of the genre), David Constantine has now published several poetry collections, including ‘Collected Poems’ (2004) and “Elder” (2014), from which his intensely voiced Archive reading is taken. The poems presented here give some idea of his virtuosity and his simplicity: ‘Nude’, in which “plain nouns” simultaneously paint an erotic picture and tranquil love poem; the impressionistic nocturne, ‘Shabbesgoy’, about the “boy courting, radiant” in his moonlit “trance of vows and wishes”; the marvellous ‘Legger’, which memorialises a forgotten breed of men who ‘roof-walked’ their narrow boats through canal tunnels built deep into primal rock; ‘Soldiering On’ and ‘Confessional’, two very different poems about conflict, the latter about the Second World War, during which the poet was born (only just) and by which (even so) he was marked for life; ‘New Year behind the Asylum’, with its shocking moment of unexpected intimacy and heartache in the black fields skirting a nameless town at midnight; and the touching lyric about death seen through a young boy’s tears for his dying goldfish, and his mother’s own reciprocal ‘lacrimae rerum’,
Grieving that his grief was right, just, true.
As an Oxford don with a dash of MacNeice’s elegance in his poetic artifice, Constantine can write allusive, brilliant lyrics which inhabit a literary as well as emotional world. But for all the cymbals and alluring Aphrodites, his best poetry yokes the ordinary and the symbolic with the audacity of a contemporary metaphysical poet. As one might expect from an admirer of German lyric poetry, his quarry is Feeling and his sophisticated weapon, Form. Feeling, of course, is also the unbreakable link between the writer, the reader and the art of living. As Constantine has written: “Reading poetry is mostly solitary, its effect communal. It connects the reader across gender, race, culture, time and space with other possible ways of being human… I don’t say the connectedness of the poem, and the feeling of connectedness engendered by the poem in its reader, are immediately transferable to social living. Of course not. But they make a potent analogy, and the mind of the citizen needs good analogies, better ideas for social life, so that the discrepancy between the way we live and the way we might live will always be apparent and undeniable.”
This recording was made for the Poetry Archive on 28 January 2014 at ID Audio, London and was produced by John Green.
Some of David Constantine’s favourite quotations about poetry:
‘Labour well the Minute Particulars’ – William Blake
‘A poem is an event, not the record of an event’ – Robert Lowell
‘Poetry should be strong enough to help’ – George Seferis
‘The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law & precept, but by sensation & watchfulness in itself…’ – John Keats
This recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 28 January 2014 at ID Audio, London, and was produced by John Green.
Poems by David Constantine
Featured in the Archive
Books by David Constantine
Watching for the Dolphins
Early Greek Travellers and the Hellenic Ideal
The Pelt of Wasps
Something for the Ghosts
Under the Dam
Tea at the Midland and Other Stories
Poetry: The Literary Agenda
In Another Country: Selected Stories
Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, Tea at the Midland and Other Stories
BBC National Short Story Award, "Tea at the Midland"Prize website
Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, shortlist, The Shieling
Popescu Prize, translation of Hans Magnus Enzensberger's Lighter than AirPrize website
Whitbread Poetry Prize, shortlist, Watching for DolphinsPrize website
Supernumerary Fellow - The Queen's CollegePrize website