‘Poetry has a kind of healing power: a poem is a temporary binding together of what cannot permanently be bound together.’ Poet Mark Roper speaks to Tracy Gaughan about the books that gave him wings, his appetite for the sacred, and our relationship with the ‘more-than-human’ world.
Mark Roper is an English poet, living in Ireland for some 40 years now. His latest poetry collection Bindweed, Dedalus Press (2017), was shortlisted for The Irish Times Poetry Now Award. A Gather of Shadow (2012) was also shortlisted for that Award and won the Michael Hartnett Award in 2014. With photographer Paddy Dwan, he has published The River Book, The Backstrand, and Comeragh.
What does poetry mean to you and what does it do for you? Were you destined to become a writer?
No, there was never any sense of being destined to become a writer. I would have scribbled away from my teens on, but it would never remotely have crossed my mind that I could write a poem. That was for other people (in fact a large part of me still feels this way). I had studied English at University, I liked poetry and would buy books and go to readings. After we moved to Ireland in 1980, I wrote some short stories and was lucky enough to attend a weekend workshop Eavan Boland gave in Waterford in 1982. After that workshop, the poet Roz Cowman took me aside and said she thought my stories were really poems. That was the permission I needed, and the poems began to well up. A group formed after the workshop, and they were a wonderful proving ground for me. And Roz acted as a mentor, she would read every poem I wrote and give me feedback. The American poet Jean Valentine said every new writer needs a blessing from an older, more established writer. Roz gave me that blessing – I can never thank her enough. After a while, I also became aware of Michael Coady, John Ennis, Thomas McCarthy, Sean Dunne, Edward Power: established poets from the South-East who handled their talent with great modesty and balance. They were great models. My first collection, The Hen Ark, came out when I was 40 – so Destiny was a bit late on the scene! I would never call myself a poet, going along with Michael Longley’s comment that calling yourself one is like calling yourself a saint. The best poets are so very good. For about the last 40 years then, poetry has been at the core of my being. I ‘taught’ creative writing for 30 years, which led to even deeper involvement. It’s not everything – I probably spend more time watching birds, looking for flowers, gardening, but all these things feed into the work. I like to think that poetry has been, simply, the work of me, or even better, the use of me.
What poets are important to you? Which poets find their way into your head when you’re writing and who do you go to for pleasure?
Rilke is perhaps my real favourite. When I opened a copy of the Selected Poems in Foyles Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road, reading the first page of the first Duino Elegy was like having a bucket of cold water thrown over my head. That extraordinary mix of diction and imagery which sounds like nobody else, even in translation, and the truly remarkable range of ideas addressed. I still find that first page shocking. During the lockdown, I re-read a lot of his work. A great thing about Rilke, in the absence (I believe) of a comprehensive complete edition of his work in English, is that you keep coming across stuff that is new. I’ve just finished the collected French poems (in translation) – some 400 poems of his new to me. Other important poets are too many to mention, but a few would include Don McKay, the Canadian poet who writes about the more-than-human world with deep knowledge and insight, but in an offbeat, quirky way which I love. I love Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley; Kerry Hardie, James Harpur, Moya Cannon, Peter Sirr. Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin, Alice Oswald, Kathleen Jamie, Robin Robertson, Norman MacCaig, Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy, John Clare, Hopkins, D.H. Lawrence. Simon Armitage, John Burnside, David Constantine, Ian Duhig. Americans would include at least W. S. Merwin, Elizabeth Bishop, Galway Kinnell, Raymond Carver, Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, Jack Gilbert, Sharon Olds, Stanley Kunitz, Gary Snyder, Wallace Stevens, Ruth Stone. Johannes Bobrowski, Yves Bonnefoy, Jaan Kaplinski, Lorca, Les Murray, Pessoa, Tranströmer. The list goes in and on.
Tell me about your upbringing. Were there books that you would say defined your childhood?
I was brought up in a vast Victorian vicarage, a place with plenty of room to hide. There was a big garden too. In some ways, I never quite belonged in the world. There was a status to being a vicar’s son which wasn’t actually based on anything. I don’t know if it was some sort of reaction to this, but I got into a lot of trouble when I was small. Books didn’t play a huge part. I do treasure the memory of my mother reading to me at night, many of the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, the Eagle of the Ninth series. Not much poetry. What defined my childhood in the way of books, what served as poetry and has really left a lasting influence, would be the Bible, as well as prayers, hymns, and carols. I lost any belief very quickly, but words and phrases and their rhythms entered into me deeply, and their power remains. The Lion of Judah. The Waters of Babylon. And let my cry come unto thee. At one point I built a lectern from scraps of wood to hold a Bible beside my bed, intending to read it all. The plan collapsed quickly with the collapse of the lectern. I spent a couple of years haunted and absolutely terrified by the last line of the Lord’s Prayer, “forever and ever”. I think it was the thought of doing the exact same thing every day, forever – I can still think myself back into that terror very easily. But the wonder remains. I can sing hymns for hours on end. D. H. Lawrence put it perfectly in his essay ‘Hymns In A Man’s Life’: “Now we come back to the hymns. They live and glisten in the depths of the man’s consciousness in undimmed wonder because they have not been subjected to any criticism or analysis. By the time I was sixteen I had criticized and got over the Christian dogma …. So that the miracle of the loaves and fishes is just as good to me now as when I was a child. I don’t care whether it is historically a fact or not. What does it matter? It is part of the genuine wonder.”
The other book which had a huge influence was the small Observer’s Book of Birds (by S. Vere Benson, I now know.) I read that over and over again. There are birds I’ve never seen (a hawfinch, say) which are so familiar to me from the illustrations in that book that if I were to see one now, I would feel as if I were remembering it rather than seeing it for the first time.
My first real awareness of poetry came at school when I was about 15. Our teacher read poems from Sylvia Plath’s Ariel with us, off the curriculum. The poems Thomas Hardy wrote following the death of his first wife Emma Gifford went straight into me and stayed there, their haunted and haunting nature and rhythms:
“Up the cliff, down, till I’m lonely, lost,
And the unseen waters’ ejaculations awe me.” (After A Journey)
The rhythm in those lines is extraordinary. We also studied Synge’s Playboy, and many phrases from that went straight in and remained as well: “since Tuesday was a week”; “I riz the loy”. New and exciting sounds for me.
You’ve been described as a nature poet and your work as ‘a beautifully integrated collection of lyrical meditations on the natural world, incisive and finely-observed.’ There’s a long tradition of the pastoral in the history of poetry but where did your urge to describe the natural world — its landscapes and changing seasons – come from?
When we had been living in Ireland for about a year, my mother asked me to keep a diary for her. I found it began to focus on the more-than-human world and found I was re-working images to make them stronger. I still remember a description of Oxalis, its little flowers “studs of pink in a gloom of green.” I was pleased with that! This was probably the beginning of wanting to take writing more seriously. I’ve been fond of birds and flowers since childhood. As well as watching and finding them, I do love to discover their names. I’m with Elizabeth Bishop, who near the end of her life said, “I want to know the names of everything.” The German entomologist Karl von Frisch studied the honeybee all his life. He said the bee was like a Magic Well: the more he got to know about it, the more there was to know. That applies to everything in the more-than-human world, it is endless.
In my poetry now I think, I hope, that I’m constantly trying to question the relationship between Us and Nature. I do write poems of sheer wonder and celebration, but I would also niggle away at what exactly our relationship is. In the blurb on the back cover of my last collection Bindweed (2017), I wanted to avoid the term ‘natural world’. We ended up using ‘more-than-human world’. The English writer Richard Jeffries used the term ‘ultrahuman’. I wouldn’t be happy with any of them. I think any term you use only goes to establish a false distinction. They imply a separation between us as if there were humans on one side, and the natural world on the other. In fact, we are all part of this world. We are animals living among other animals, we share most of our genes with them, we are all part of the same system of growth and decay. We sometimes think of Nature as the domain of the Wild, but we ourselves are much wilder than we think: our bodies are subject constantly to the wildness of illness, which can be very wild and infinitely complicated (as we are learning all over again at present), and our minds are also much wilder than we think, much less under our control. It’s very hard to control your attention! So we are part of the more-than-human world, but it’s also true that in so many ways we are cut off from it, not least by language. I mentioned my love of naming earlier, but naming can so easily mean caging, cutting what we name off from ourselves. Obviously nothing in the natural world is aware of the name we have given to it.
There is also the fact of course that perhaps the greatest part of a relationship to the more-than-human world lies in the fact that we are destroying it, devastatingly so in the last 200 years. ‘An ecologist lives in a world of wounds’, said Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac – more than 70 years ago now. Trying to write about this without ranting and hectoring or giving in to despair is another challenge.
Your poetry blends something of Tim Robinson’s scientific accuracy/artistic reverie and John O’Donoghue’s comforting poetic meditations. Is writing a spiritual practice for you? Do you find working with words and responding to the world the way you do as a poet, cathartic in some ways?
Well, I’ve always tried to avoid the term ‘spirit’ in my poetry. I think the idea that we humans have a spirit, separate to our body, that might survive death, has done the most enormous damage. But I know what you mean. I have a strong sense of the Sacred, but that would not be as in sacred to anything beyond nature, it would be the sense, the feeling of the sacred. There’s a phrase from Coleridge that has always resonated with me, where he talks about vision being an “appetite”. That is, we may have a strong sense of seeing a vision at times, but it doesn’t mean there is anything out there! I think I have an appetite for the sacred, and would often find this in the more-than-human world, and try to re-create it in poems I write. That sense of the sacred can come from the absence of the human. Thoreau (who is a great hero of mine) wrote in his Journal: “I love Nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him. None of his institutions control or pervade her. There a different kind of right prevails. In her midst, I can be glad with an entire gladness. If this world were all man, I could not stretch myself, I should lose all hope. He is constraint, she is freedom to me. He makes me wish for another world. She makes me content with this.” I love that phrase ‘an entire gladness’, and also that Nature makes him content with this world. I don’t think of Nature as spiritual, or as having a moral quality – it is this world. This is the only world – I’ve probably insisted on that too much in some poems.
Also, at the end of Walden, Thoreau says: “We need the tonic of wildness – to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe, … At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed, and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of Nature …. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we can never wander.”
I think it’s really important that Nature is not understood, not to be used, and is to be reverenced in that way. Take an encounter with a fox say, in that split second when you see each other, and there are no words for the feeling that evokes. Or just staring at the extraordinary mystery of the night sky. Or being in a wood, forgetting the names of the trees, opening yourself up to these huge living forms, much older than you are, frightening, awesome. True connection maybe really lies in this separation, this awareness of the deep otherness of other forms of life, which will then give you deep awareness of your own otherness. That pre-verbal sense of wonder is terribly important. Based on this, a poem is bound to fail – you are trying to put something in words that is actually beyond words. I would try to make my poems point to what is unsayable, and I would at times point to the disparity between the word and experience, as in this short poem ‘Keep-Net’:
O voice, this world
you’d catch and keep
shines and slips through
each word you shape. (A Gather of Shadow)
Carol Rumens, in her introduction to your collection Even So: New and Selected Poems (Dedalus Press, 2008), suggests the collection is your ‘gift’ to your adopted home. What prompted you to move to Kilkenny in the 1980s and moreover, to remain? What was it about Ireland that inspired your way of envisioning the natural world?
I moved from England to Ireland in 1980 with my partner Jane, specifically from Oxford to Owning, a small village in south-east Kilkenny. We wanted to live in the countryside, that was our main reason. We felt we couldn’t afford to do that in England. We had some friends in Dublin, with whom we’d been on holiday some years before in County Clare. That was our first time in Ireland, and we’d loved it. When we mentioned wanting to live in the countryside to them, they said they wanted to do the same thing, so why didn’t we all move into the Irish countryside. Immediately this seemed the perfect solution. I don’t remember us having a second thought.
Inasmuch as Ireland is close enough to England, it didn’t feel like an emigration. It involved crossing a sea, but it was perhaps more like moving house. If I had moved to Scotland, I might have had to travel further. Yet it was a move to new territory. The cottage was pretty isolated, up a hill above the village. And though Ireland is close enough to England in most aspects of culture, it is also in many ways different. So there was a sense of emigration.
I came first, to join my friends Joe and Eilis in the cottage. Jane followed later. I spent the night before I left with Jane and friends in Wales. I drank too much. The next morning, with a terrible hangover, I helped my friend on his farm, until it was time to get the train to Fishguard. No one checked any papers. There was a complete absence of formalities. I simply got on the train, then the ferry to Rosslare. Where was the border? I felt like I was slipping in under the radar. I wanted to stop someone and tell them I was leaving the country. Looking back I suppose I was trying to tell myself I was leaving, trying to invest the occasion with a significance it didn’t seem to possess. The next morning I woke up living in another country. For a while, a couple of years maybe, we weren’t quite sure of ourselves, and we did think of moving back. Then we bought a small cottage of our own, and we settled. I can’t really say it was a deliberate move to Ireland, nor was it a deliberate move away from England. In retrospect though, I think it worked for me as a move away from a particular class structure, and a sense of constriction. I found myself in more space, and I found myself at a remove to what I had known up to then. I’m sure that helped to get my writing started. And because I was living in the countryside, I was free to observe more, and I began to get more and more interested in what I was observing, and then eventually in trying to bring that observation into poems.
There was a very important moment for me when I brought a long poem about my father to our writing group, not long after I’d begun to try to write poems. I had to read it out. I hadn’t worried about this, but the second I started to read I was overcome with emotion, my voice was going all over the place, the piece of paper was shaking uncontrollably. I got through it somehow but was sure I’d made a complete fool of myself. The group was absolutely great, they made no fuss, just made sure I was alright and looked calmly at the poem. This was a huge permission for me. I’ve always had a feeling that if this had happened in England, someone would have sniggered, and that would probably have shut me up for good. That may be unfair, but on a symbolic level, it is true for me. There is an emotional generosity between people in Ireland that has been a real liberation for me. I do like the acceptance. I’ve thought about applying for Irish citizenship, but that kind of official status isn’t important to me. Shortly before he was killed in the First World War, in a letter to his parents, the English poet Charles Sorley said he hoped that when the war was over, people would forget about their nationality, and confess themselves “strangers and pilgrims on this earth.” That’s what I would like on my passport, under nationality: Stranger, Pilgrim.
How do you think you’ve evolved as a writer over the years? Has your approach to writing poems changed since your first collection, The Hen Ark (Peterloo, 1990)?
I think I have probably become a little bit more sure about what I’m doing. At the start I wrote loads of poems which in the end never made it into a collection – I would spend a lot of time on poems that were not going to be good enough. I do this much less now, if I work on a poem it tends to be one that will end up being collected – there aren’t as many near-misses. Working on librettos for opera, where metre, rhythm, and rhyme need to be tight, has, paradoxically, freed up my use of the line in my poetry, where I used to be a real syllable-counter. I can’t shake that habit, but I’m trying not to have to make every line the same length and to go more by the length of the phrase. I think also that I do write more directly about the more-than-human world now. There are probably fewer and fewer people in my poems! Although any poem I write is never absolutely about the more-than-human world. Very often I use an image from it as a kind of jumping-off point, working human emotion through that imagery.
Of the books you’ve written, which is the most personally meaningful?
There are probably two, Whereabouts (2005)and Bindweed (2017). I talk about Bindweed in answer to one of the questions following. Whereabouts was my third full collection (I had also published the chapbook The Home Fire.) It seemed to me that my first two collections, The Hen Ark and Catching The Light (1997), had received very little attention. So I felt that if that was going to be the case with Whereabouts as well, I would really have to consider whether to carry on – what would be the point of producing poems that nobody read? I think also that I’d lost my way a bit in the poems in the first half of Catching The Light, and I needed to get back to what I thought was more my own voice. So the poems in Whereabouts were very much trying to be in my own voice – whilst I wanted a reaction, I deliberately set my face against thinking in any way how people would react to them. I think the poems in that collection begin to contain and question what I would consider a blend of attention to the more-than-human world and personal doubt or doubt about the self. There’s a link there between a personal wound and the wounds inflicted on the more-than-human world, which is something I keep trying to explore. Whereabouts was widely and positively reviewed, which renewed my confidence. And it turned out in fact that there had been much more of a positive response to the first two collections, which I just hadn’t been aware of.
Talk to me about your involvement with UCD and the Irish Poetry Reading Archive.
Like many others, I was asked to go up to UCD to record poems for their Reading Archive. It’s a wonderful project, I’m proud to be involved in it. Whilst there, Ursula Byrne, the organizer of the Reading Archive, asked me about my own archive. I’d never really thought about it, wasn’t even sure I had one, but when I began to look I found I had kept almost everything concerned with my writing. So over the last year, I’ve been collecting it all together, and it will all go to UCD in the autumn. I’m proud that a university library should consider it worth keeping, and particularly proud that it should be an Irish university library.
You were editor of Poetry Ireland Review in 1999. Can you talk a little about that experience; the challenges and delights attached to such a role? What has being an editor taught you about writing?
Delights, were there delights?! Only joking. Again I was proud to be asked – I think I’m the only English editor so far? There was a lot of work, something like 3000 poems submitted for each issue, of which I could only take very few. I would be dividing them into 3 piles as I read them, ‘Definitely Yes’, ‘Possibly’, and ‘No’. I would always hope that the ‘Definitely Yes’ pile would simply end up containing the right number of poems and then I wouldn’t be faced with hard decisions about the rest! The ‘Possibly’ pile would all be good poems, but I very rarely had the time to write and tell their authors that. I did with a few, and I’m pleased that I’ve met some of those people since and they’ve told me how much my letter meant to them. I tried to get as many collections reviewed as I could, which wasn’t easy since the payment then was just 5 euro for a review. I had a feature where I asked two poets to respond to a poem of my choosing. That produced some really lovely responses – I remember in particular a wonderful piece by Carol Rumens about a Medbh McGuckian poem. I did learn that I can make my mind up almost instantly about a poem, it’s either got it or it hasn’t. That taught me to look at my own poems in the same way – at a certain point, when I feel a poem is strong enough to take it, I try to look at it as quickly as a hard-pressed editor might. It’s quite revealing. Sometimes a lightning response, and perhaps a lightning revision, can be just what a poem needs.
Eudora Welty once said that ‘No art ever came out of not risking your neck’. What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken as a writer?
Well, I can answer that one literally! Starting out on the book about the Comeragh Mountains I did with photographer Paddy Dwan, in 2014, I fell into a gully and broke my neck. I was rescued by helicopter. I had to wear a neck brace for 3 months. So that was risking my neck, but perhaps the real risk occurred when writing about the whole thing, for my last collection Bindweed. Something happened to me during my recuperation, I guess a lot of things from my past caught up with me and I realised that I was going to have to face them. I couldn’t wait to have the collar taken off, but I also knew that when it did come off I would be psychologically defenseless. The poem ‘Aspen Collar’ leads into the section of the book where I wrote ‘about’ that time – albeit obliquely, for the reason that how it all started in my childhood is still not at all clear, it hasn’t been fully resolved, and never can be. There is a narrative in the second half of the collection, starting with the physical accident, moving into the psychological trauma. This involved having to face up to many things from my past. There is a kind of healing, which is there in its first half of the collection too, in poems such as ‘Moon’ and ‘Shadow’. I often think of Plato’s idea that we were only ‘half-made’ originally, and are doomed to spend our life on this earth searching for the other half of ourselves that will make us feel whole. He was applying that idea to why a human being needs to find a mate, but I think it also has a metaphysical aspect. There is always this sense that we are missing something. We have probably lost that ‘other half’ by losing our sense of ourselves as animals, I suspect. I do think poetry has a kind of healing power: a poem is a temporary binding together of what cannot permanently be bound together. In that sense, you might say that in the writing of a poem, in the words we find, we make ourselves whole, we stop being ‘half-made’ as Plato suggested. This also applies to the reading of a poem I think, and both of these kinds of ‘healing’ occur the more you read and write poetry. I also think this is why people so often turn to poetry at times of great emotion – for that sense of healing and wholeness. It’s a temporary sense, it won’t last forever, but it can be an enormous consolation. We saw this very strongly at the start of the lockdown.
Collaborative ventures can often energise and give new power to artists and throughout your career, you’ve worked with photographers, painters, and composers. Can you tell me more about these collaborations, in particular your relationship with photographer Paddy Dwan with whom you’ve produced some illuminating books on the natural history of Waterford landscapes?
I’ve done three books with Paddy, and we’re working on a fourth, about the Waterford coastline. Paddy approached me originally to work with him on something about the River Suir, and this eventually turned into The River Book (2010), a book of photos and text. We used the same format for The Backstrand (2013) and Comeragh (2018). We spend a lot of time walking together, exploring, with him taking photos and me usually just taking things in. In the books the photos are not meant to be illustrations, they stand on their own, as a different approach to a subject that might or might not be addressed in the writing. It’s a very enjoyable experience, we’ve been at it for some thirteen years now. Possibly the best part of it is when we get the proofs from the printers Nicholson & Bass. We would have sent them the text and the photos, with some guidance as to where to pair them together, but we leave a lot of leeway. N & B has a wonderful designer, Davy Anderson. Getting the proofs is the first time we actually see the collaboration on the page, where it has been given a whole extra dimension by Davy’s design. It’s a kind of private sharing for us before the books go public. Such moments are the real joy of collaboration. I’ve worked a lot with choreographer Libby Seward. One project was called ‘Crossing’, a multi-media stage show which was performed as part of the Tall Ships Festival in 2011. It was based around a sequence of poems I’d written. In the early stages, we would meet in a rehearsal room. I would bring in one of the poems and talk about it, maybe bring in a painting or something to amplify it. Ezequiel Oliveira was the dancer, the main performer. After a while he would start to improvise a dance, sometimes with Jess, Libby’s daughter, sometimes on his own. Áine Uí Cheallaigh might be there, learning to sing the poem. These first shared creative moments were wonderful to be involved with. And it was the same with composer Eric Sweeney, who has very sadly just died. I worked with Eric a lot over the past ten years. Working on the 2 operas, The Invader and The Green One, Eric would always want words first. I’d send him a scene, and after a while, we’d meet in a small room in the cathedral and he’d play me the music he’d composed, singing the words. These private moments, with artists from other disciplines, when the first tangible fruit of collaboration is shared, have been very special for me.
What’s next for Mark Roper? Any new projects in the pipeline you’d like to share with our readers?
I’m working on a new collection, provisionally entitled ‘Beyond Stillness’, I’m a good way into that. And working on the book about the Waterford coastline with Paddy Dwan. Earlier this year I had picked out ten classic haiku, reflecting the course of the seasons, which Eric Sweeney had set to music. We were due to perform the piece at the Imagine Festival in October. Just before Eric died, we met and he played me the music. Perhaps someone else will be able to play it in October.