It's just got to be pieced back together: an interview with David Constantine
Updated: Jun 19, 2022
Following Auden, Larkin, and Hughes, David Constantine received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2020. He was editor of Modern Poetry in Translation and has judged both the T. S. Eliot Prize and the National Poetry Competition. He spoke in English and French with our editor, James Appleby.
You grew up in Salford, then studied French and German at Oxford. What influence have foreign languages had on your life?
Massive – there was something especially important in studying German then. After the War the BBC made a conscious effort to reconnect with Germany’s humane tradition. They had reporters at meetings of the Gruppe 47, for example. They broadcast work by the German-Jewish playwright Wolfgang Hildesheimer. And in 1949 Penguin published a new translation of Goethe’s Faust (by Philip Wayne). These were efforts to demonstrate that what had happened in Germany was a hideous caesura. Coming to power in January 1933, Hitler reduced a highly civilized nation to barbarism in just five months.
Was there any stigma about learning German at the time?
No! None at all. I had an excellent German teacher and an even better French teacher. I mean, in some ways it was a terrible education because it was so highly specialised – I did no science after the age of thirteen or fourteen, just English and modern languages. But we learnt a lot. Manchester Grammar School was completely classless. I don’t know how many local accents there were then in Greater Manchester, but nobody ever said we shouldn’t be speaking like that. 25% of pupils were Jewish. MGS served its purpose well, until it became a private school.
Tell me more about your experiences with speakers of foreign languages.
I had a German pen-friend in Krefeld, in the Ruhr. I spent a couple of weeks in his house, then he came to ours. There’s a story about that – I’ll tell you, if you don’t mind. My grandmother’s husband was blown to bits at Guillemont on the Somme. She suffered grievously from ‘the Germans’ and ‘the German War’. And then she lived through the Second World War and was bombed out along with countless other people (to somewhere rather better in the end, a better house). But when she knew that this German was coming – this boy, my age – she was nervous. She was really nervous. She had, obviously, a worry about Germans because they’d caused two world wars and killed her husband. Now, he’d been in our house for only three hours – and she took me to one side, and she said, ‘He’s a lovely lad!’ Her meeting a real German and being able to like him in our house, that was critical to me in my understanding of what the learning of foreign languages is for.
What do you think is the result of this being a country of so many monolingual English speakers?
It’s frightful. And it’s getting worse – Brexit made it worse. In 1990, in deep snow, I went to give a reading and some classes to students in Dresden. They’d deliberately not learned Russian well – they mangled it – but they were absolutely fluent in English and had never been anywhere near England. Their English department was housed in old containers. I did practical criticism with them as though they were my students at Oxford – they were that good. And the next day, one of these students showed me around Dresden. She said, ‘Shall I tell you what I did, as soon as the Wall came down? I got myself to England, I got myself to Stratford-upon-Avon, I lay down by the river and I said: this is it!’
That was Europe opening up. It makes me weep to see what Johnson, the liar, has done. It’s just got to be pieced back together or held together somehow.
I was reading again your poem Girl with a Cello on the Metro, which ends, ‘And all her music carrying on her back’. How important is music to you and your work?
Obviously language is not music, but they have a great deal in common in the way they work. Particularly poetic language. I listen to a lot of music – and I can’t play any instrument – but I love it. I listen seriously to some music most days. Last night I watched the news – as much as I could bear of it – and then I listened to Chopin. Other nights, it’s Debussy, it’s late Beethoven, it’s a lot of Mozart and Schubert again and again and again. Such music is pushing and pushing all the time. It’s reaching out into something that is almost graspable – but not quite.
What about popular music? I know that you like Fado and Ewan MacColl.
My wife and I are Sixties kids – we grew up with all that. It was colossal – I mean, it sounds very banal, but when at that time you met someone and fell in love, everybody knew the music. It was peculiarly, sort of… telling. And it was new. And it was not what our parents had listened to – clearly, absolutely not. It was the Beatles and the Stones and a whole lot of others. We’ve carried on listening to that in our family. Along with a great deal from France. We’ve got a lot of blues at home and jazz. I like Bessie Smith immensely. And Lead Belly, lately, more and more. And I discovered the other day that Mississippi John Hurt’s motto was: ‘Don’t die ’til you’re dead’. Most inspiring!
And rhythm? How important is it for you to conserve the rhyme and metre of poems?
Late Hölderlin rhymes and so do my translations of him. My licence was to use half-rhyme and to move rhyme schemes around. It’s critical in this case, as Hölderlin went back to rhyme after being away from it since his early twenties. All the mature stuff is written in versions of the classical metres, and when I translated him, I kept close to them. I established a similar discipline, and that seemed to me important. In my own work, unlike a lot of contemporary poets, I try to use all the possible resources. So I rhyme a lot. I’m happier when the structure is strict.
I’m trying to phrase this in the right way, but do you want to be unfashionable in that sense?
I’ve not consciously done it, but I realise, increasingly, the older I get… Look, I was one of the judges for the National Poetry Competition, 2020. 16,700 poems. If you want to know what the human race is like at the minute, that’s one of the ways in. But another very striking thing is how little strict form there is – which is regrettable, I’d say. Form is an antidote to laxness. It forces you to test whether these really are the words you want to be using, whether that really is what you want to say. Many modern poets use strict forms – Tony Harrison, Mimi Khalvati, Alice Oswald, for example – it’s not as though it’s vanished. But I do worry about people thinking, I open my mouth, out it comes, and the way it comes out is the way it has to be.
[French.] How was it to judge this year’s National Poetry Competition?
English doesn’t belong to one sort of people anymore. The poems we received were all written in English, but it was a global English: legitimate variations of the English language. I didn’t know Eric Yip… The judging process is anonymous until the last moment. And in the end, it’s odd to have to choose one poem from among so many. We debated for eight hours and there was much give and take. The poems on that list of finalists were, in our minds, of the first rank of importance.
What did you think of this year’s winning entry, Fricatives by Eric Yip? I have to say that I really enjoyed that poem.
And so did I. I had to get used to it, read it again and again – but then I saw just how good it was.
[English.] One last question: what about your own award? How was it to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry?
I was absolutely astonished. I’m hopeless with a mobile phone and I got a message saying: one missed call. I don’t even know how to retrieve those bloody things! But the missed call was from Simon Armitage. So after a while I phoned him back… And it was all very touching.
So, yes, the Queen Zoomed me. And everybody I met – including the guys in black with massive submachine guns at the ready – they were all courteous, every one of them. The whole thing was bizarre – there’s the screen and there is Her Majesty. And she asked me questions, and listened to my answers. I’m not a royalist, but it moved me to see someone so conscientious and gracious in what she has to do. She was intelligent about poetry and wanted to know more about it. We had a conversation.
You can read more about David Constantine at Bloodaxe Books.
Photo credit: Helen Constantine