The Listener 28 May 1970
Robert Graves, in one of your poems you describe your own face:
Cheeks, furrowed; coarse grey hair, flying
Forehead, wrinkled and high;
Jowls, prominent; ears, large; jaw,pugilistic;
Teeth, few'; lips, full and ruddy, mouth,ascetic.
You ask the person you see reflected in your shaving mirror why
He still stands ready, with a boy's
To court the queen in her high silk pavilion.
Who is the queen in her high silk pavilion?
She's the woman to whom I'm writing the poem, and whatever her name may be is unimportant. Herrick used to address his poems to Julia - so we'll call her Julia, if you like. I used the name back in the early Sixties. You can't write poems unless you're in love with someone, but you don't mention the name, because it's bad manners. There are very often poems of good-bye which are very painful. They are a goodbye to love, while love is still very much in your mind-horrible.
Do you consider yourself fortunate inhaving been a poet?
There's no alternative. If you're born that way, that's your fate - and you've got to do your best. It's a way of life. You have to be in the world, but not of the world, as the Sufis say. You can't cheat and you must only say what you have to say and not what people would like you to say.
So that to write a true poem means rejecting as much as accepting?
What's more, writing a poem is rather like finding the top of a statue buried in sand. You gradually take the sand away and you find the thing, whole - That is what poetry is, rather than building something up. It's rediscovering what you've known inside yourself the whole time, what you've foreseen.
You've written that you write poems for poets. Do you mean you write poems exclusively for poets, or for people who live as poets do?
A poet is a person who lives and thinks in a certain way. A poet doesn't necessarily write poems. It is simply an attitude, and there are a great many more poets around than meet the eve. I think about one person in 20 is perhaps a poet. The ones who are not poets expect something of what they think is poetry, which I don't propose to give them. What I write is for people to understand who are on the same, as they say, wavelength as myself. I don't write for an audience at all really: I write for myself. But the audience is presumably there.
What kind of people are they, these people who are on the same wavelength as you?
They're people whom you can absolutely trust, instinctively; and they're people who don't argue. They are people whom you can trust in a crisis, and people who will never do anything mean. And they don't argue logically. Logical argument is what destroys poetry because poetry is beyond logic.
Are they people who perhaps feel a greater wisdom, through the instincts or the senses?
I think it's probably memory, some inherited bardic memory.
This you think of as, in some senses, a Welsh characteristic?
Yes, very much. You see, scientists are beginning to realise, from studies of snails and so on, that memory can be inherited; and in Ireland and in New Zealand - where there have been tremendously long courses for poets and orators - the children are born with a great advantage. Wales has been so full of poetry for so long that there are probably more potential poets there and in Ireland and in New Zealand among the Maoris than there are elsewhere. It's a question of memory.
In 'Goodbye to All That ' you've written about what Wales meant to you when you were a child living in Harlech. Has Wales had a great effect on you as a man and as a poet?
Obviously. I was born in London and you can't have any great feeling for London. We spent our holidays at Harlech. My father was an Irish bard who was attached to the Eisteddfod; and he was one of the group who helped to start the Welsh Folk-Song Society. I used to go with my sister through the hill country behind Harlech; we had one of those wax phonographs and used it to collect Welsh folk-songs. Unfortunately, those were the days before cassettes and other instruments. All we had was the phonograph, and my sister, who was a musician, would note down what we had recorded-and then we had to rewax the cylinder. We had only one. It was a great pity because we lost the actual singing voices of the people. Nowadays when you collect folk-songs you get the actual singing voice, and that's important. You get all the gracenotes.
In 'Rocky Acres' you mention crake-berries. I've never seen any myself
Crakeberry grows up on the hills behind Harlech - I don't know anywhere elsewhere it grows. In 1929 1 went to live in Majorca, and I chose a place which was as near as possible to the scenery I was accustomed to in Harlech: the same grey rocks, and looking over the sea.
Perhaps one of your best-known poems is 'Welsh Incident'. Could you tell us the story behind the writing of that poem?
The Irish used to say that you write one sort of poem with your right hand and an-other with your left, and I think it was the same with the Welsh bards. But the right hand is the constructive one and the left is the satiric one, and you can't be serious the whole time. Occasionally you have to have a satire, which is pleasant joking, and this is what 'Welsh Incident' was intended to be. It started when my father and I were in a train compartment of the old Cambrian Railway. The train was going round that curve from BaTMouth, through Llan-bedr, round into Harlech where you see the sea stretched out; and there was a policeman aboard, a Welsh policeman. He got very excited and started telling my father how he had recently seen a mermaid. He wasn't joking either: it was in perfect seriousness and made a very powerful impression on us all. Mermaids come into that poem, you may remember. And, of course, I'd been to those sea caves-, I'd been taken there by Professor Lloyd Williams, a botanist by profession, who was also one of the great Welsh mythologists. You could go there only at low tide about once a year. The caves had a very great fascination for me. But about 'Welsh Incident' - I wrote it in a Welsh accent. I remember once during the war in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, there was a certain Lieutenant Shankland, and I was telling a story in Welsh and he said: 'Captain Graves, sir! ' And I said: 'Yes, Mr Shankland? ' ' Captain Graves, sir, why can't you talk your own bloody dialect?' Wales is very important to me; and if asked what was the most important tech-nical influence on my verse I'd say the Welsh. It started with cynghanedd. My first poem published in book form was an englyn. I'd been taught the different rules of cynghanedd by an Archdeacon Edwards who was one of the most learned Eisteddfod poets. He was very patient with me. His bardic name was Gwynedd and he got the same prize for his essay on metrics as Dafydd ap Edmund won at the Carmar-then Eisteddfod in 1451. The actual bones of my poetry are different from the spirit behind them; and that. started strangely in the Second World War when I was reading the Mabinogion. I suddenly came on an account of the child Taliesin appearing in the middle of a group of bards and telling them his story in a way which every scholar has since said was absolute non-sense. But I looked at this nonsense verse and somehow-and this is quite inexplicable - I knew that it was a riddle in 22 parts, with all the pieces muddled up, and that the answer was the letter names of a 22-letter Irish alphabet. Now, I knew no Welsh, beyond a few words, and I knew no ancient Irish although my grandfather had been an expert on it; but I knew the answer and-this actually staggered me - I wrote it down. Since then nobody's been able to prove me wrong. From that started this whole White Goddess concept, which is really a Welsh one. And the other day when I was reading the Sunday Times I came on their 'Thousand Makers of the 20th Century', and I found myself listed among the G's and H's along with Goering and Hitler and Goebbels and other splendid characters, and I was in there on account of the White Goddess, and that I owe originally to Wales.
You seem to think of the White Goddess as a symbol of womanhood, at once creative, reproductive and destructive. Mother figure, lover figure and the old hag who lays us out.
Well, the White Goddess is the most ancient goddess in Europe, Asia and Africa; and she's white for various reasons - white in a good sense and white in a bad sense. She's the person who makes poets write poems and she puts them through ordeals and gives them a hell of a time; and eventually if they don't kill themselves, or otherwise disgrace themselves, she forgives them and then they go to Paradise, the Welsh Paradise-which is the same as the Irish tree Paradise. She subjects the poets to a number of deaths; and when they've died often enough she relents: and the reward for having suffered a succession of White Goddesses is to meet the Black Goddess. The Black Goddess is represented in Greek mythology by the figure of Mother Night. Mother Night sits in the cave and represents wisdom, honour and justice; and in front of her sits a White Goddess calling attention to her oracles by beating a brazen drum. That is what happens to poets. Eventually, if they have satisfied her ordeals, they get through to the Black Goddess. And are in a position to say what they know without suffering ... I hope one day I shall meet the Black Goddess.
From BBC TV Wales
To work it out even a thought better
Than ever before-yet a thought rare
To raise a sigh of wonder-
That is your art (he said) but mine also
Since first I fell upon the secret
And sighed for wonder that our dry mouths
After a world of travel
Were drawn together by the same spell
To drink at the same well.
Coincidence (she said) continues with us,
Secret by secret.
Love's magic being no more than obstinacy
In love's perfection-
Like the red apple, highest on the tree
Reserved for you by me.
Diffidently, when asked who might I be,
I agreed that, yes, I ruled a small kingdom
Though, like yourself, free to wander abroad
Hatless, barefooted and incognito.
Abruptly we embraced-a strange event,
The casual passers-by taking less notice
Than had this been a chance meeting of
Nor did we argue over protocol.
You, from your queendom, answerable only
To royal virtue, not to a male code,
Knew me for supernatural, like yourself,
And fell at once head over heels in love;
As I also with you-but lamentably
Never confessed what wrathful powers attest
The Roman jealousy of my male genius.
You were a child and I your veteran;
An age of violence lay between us,
Yet both claimed citizenship of the same
Conversing in our own soft, hidden language,
Often by signs alone.
Our eyelids closed, little by little,
And we fell chained in an enchantment
Heavier than any known or dreamed before,
Groping in darkness for each other's fingers,
Lifting them to our lips.
Here brooded power beyond comparison,
Tremendous as a thousand bee-stings
Or a great volley of steel-tipped arrows
With which to take possession of a province
That no one could deny us,
For the swift regeneration of dead souls
And the pride of those undead.
Peace is at last confirmed for us:
A double blessing, heavily priced,
Won back as we renew our maiden hearts
In a magic known to ourselves only,
Proof against furious tides of error
And bitter ironies of the self-damned:
Perfect in love now, though not sharing
The customary pillow-and our reasons
Appear shrouded in dark Egyptian dreams
That recreate us as a single being
Wholly in love with love.
Under each pyramid lies inverted
Its twin, the sister-bride to Pharaoh,
And so Solomon's sea] bears witness.
Therefore we neither plead nor threaten
As lovers do who have lost faith-
Lovers not riven together by an oath
Sworn on the very brink of birth,
Nor by the penetrative ray of need
Piercing our doubled pyramid to its bed.
All time lies knotted here in Time's caress,
And so Solomon's seal bears witness.