On Robert Nye

Robert Nye died last week. He was a poet. 

Photo of the author, with a genial half smile and a white beard, no glasses. He looks relaxed. Wearing a loose jumper and casual gilet, like a country squire on holiday.

He was many other things too. His main income came from novels, not poetry, and at one time he was poetry critic for The Times, and regular reviewer poetry and fiction for The Scotsman and The Guardian. Many a writer has been proud to have a quotation from Nye emblazoned on their jacket. He was a generous reader and a good friend to poets.

But now he is gone. His ‘calling’, as he put it himself, was poetry, and it is for his poetry that he would want to be remembered. He was sometimes described as ‘Gravesian’ although now the number of readers who know what that might mean is dwindling too.

I don’t know that Robert Nye’s poems do resemble Robert Graves’s in style. To some degree, perhaps. The two poets share a high regard for plainness combined with lyricism: they are lyric poets writing consciously in an ancient tradition. And of course, both found far more readers through their novels than their poems. Graves’ The White Goddess, which explores the long tradition of the poetic muse, was undoubtedly a powerful influence on Nye as a young man, and so were two other poets connected with the Graves tradition and what they referred to as ‘truth-telling’: Martin Seymour-Smith and James Reeves.

Robert only died a few days ago and yet already this catalogue of names sounds irretrievably like The Past. Who remembers Martin Seymour-Smith as a poet? Who reads James Reeves? Who openly admits Graves as an influence? Moreover, if you look at Nye’s last collection (An Almost Dancer, Greenwich Exchange 2012), you’ll see each of his lines begins with a capital letter. The poems follow a clear metrical pattern and often also a rhyming form. So Robert Nye was one of the Old Guys, then? Maybe.

Certainly he believed, in the oldest sense, in inspiration – in the idea that poetry has a mysterious source. The poem compels the poet, not the other way around. Writing poetry (unlike novels) is neither a matter of choice nor education. In ‘Runes’, an autobiographical ballad, he writes

 It was the muse of poetry
   Who held me in her spell
And made me measure all my steps
   And dance for her as well.

Before I ever wrote a line
   I was her small liege-man.
Playing the fool on the way to school
   Is where my verse began.

He is quoted on the jacket of his 1989 Hamish Hamilton collection saying ‘As for poems, I hope never to write more of them than I have to.’ He was not being coy. The statement was factual. He wrote poems when a compulsion gripped him and at no other time. As a result, his entire opus was relatively small, though the range of his poetic reading was vast. 

His friend James Reeves said that to be a poet was ‘to say nothing when there is nothing demanding to be said’ (Commitment to Poetry, Heinemann, 1969). Robert Nye did just that. And so what came to him, when it came, was sometimes curiously fragmentary, snatches of something retrieved from God knows where, like the three lines of ‘A Matador Past His Prime’ which comprise the entire poem:

Honour the fat and stumbling matador
Who having lost one shoe kicks off the other
And turns to face the bull in his stockinged feet.

Where did that come from? From wherever Robert’s poems found their source, which was as much a mystery to him as anybody else. His novels won prizes. His poetry collections did not. It didn’t matter in the least. What mattered to Robert was that some poems were written and some insightful, sympathetic readers were found. He was a dedicated and loyal letter-writer (alas – there will be no more letters) and communicated over the years with a large number of poetry friends. This circle of readers mattered to him intensely, and he was an important private responder to the work of others, just as they were for him. He did not pay much attention to fame or fuss. He was interested in the poems that he was interested in, which were of value according to his own intransigent standards, not the award criteria of the day.

Back to James Reeves:

Large profits and quick returns, philanthropic grants and radio attention, state subsidized prizes, book society recommendations and awards by festival committees – all these are irrelevant, even antipathetic, to the spirit of poetry as are interviews in Sunday supplements and publicized television appearances.

That was written in 1964. Lord knows what Reeves would say now! And while in private Robert Nye might have chuckled and agreed, he made no public comment about such things. It was irrelevant to him. He was a self-contained person and interested in poetry, and horse-racing, and his family and friends. For what it’s worth, I think his best poems – like all the best poems – are timeless. But that’s for the individual reader to put to the test. The poems are ready and waiting, though their author is gone.

Nye was the most serious of poets. Obituaries in the Telegraph and New York Times already confirm this. He was not, however, above wicked fun and although it is not (and should not be) the poem he will be best remembered for, I will end with a rare piece of satire, from his 1989 Hamish Hamilton collection and also included in the more recent Greenwich Exchange volume, The Rain and the Glass (2004). Though written some decades ago, it seems to me to have worn rather well. 


What’s it like, though, being you?
The old dog growls and bristles. This is his favourite question.
Answers win prizes. Nothing interests him more.
Inspired by the pursuit of his own tail
He has written his poems to find out what he smells like,
And now here’s another dog, a dog-fancying thoroughbred,
Just down from Oxford, trained to the minute,
On heat and eager to do some of the sniffing
For him, and to declare the crap remarkable.
Woof woof, the old dog says, bow wow.
I’ll show you where I buried my gift!





I think of them as dragon-flies, some of the fastest flying insects in the world.b2ap3_thumbnail_A_verticalis.jpg

Let’s not even mention the egg stage. When writing early poems they’re more like nymphs. In fact, most of a poet’s life may well be spent in nymph form, beneath the water’s surface (submerged), using extendable jaws for nefarious purposes. The larval stage is short for some, lengthy for others. Some remain nymphs for decades. Some tend to merge, rather than emerging. But most achieve metamorphosis. The nymph climbs up some kind of stalk and is exposed to AIR. It starts to breathe, its skin splits, and out staggers . . . a flully-fledged poet, ready to feast on midges and propel itself in at least six directions.

Or perhaps it’s not quite like that. Tim Love sent me a link to a discussion paper from Devolved Voices, a 3-year research project based at Aberystwyth University. It commenced in September 2012 and they’re mapping stuff. I like ‘mapping’. It sounds like it will help you find your way (as indeed is the intention). You may recall another well-publicised document of this kind: Mapping Contemporary Poetry, released by the Arts Council England in 2010.

Poetry world is desperately confusing to anyone starting out as a writer. So how useful is this discussion document from Aberystwyth?

I liked it a lot. You could argue that it is a little retro – not enough about spoken word routes, or social networking, or new forms of publication, but it is easier to describe what has, until recently, been true than to write about a kind of emerging that is . . . still emerging. If you’re not sure whether you’ve emerged or not, a common concern, I recommend this document.

Aberystwyth propose stages of emergency. Stage 1 you get a poem, and then a couple more, published in a magazine, possibly a local publication. The nymph is just out of the egg.

Stage 2, you start to use the extendable jaws and penetrate other magazines, “probably moving beyong the confines of an immediate locale”.

Stage 3, you get poems in much better magazines: the most widely read publications. You may even get a pamphlet published (most first-collection HappenStance poets are somewhere around stage 3). You’re climbing the stalk and you have abandoned your gills.

By Stage 4, you’re doing readings here and there, you’ve got a book collection out, you might be doing a residency or teaching creative writing. You are dining on more than just midges.

At Stage 5, you’ve got a “well-established profile over a wide national/geographic area”. You might be an “established reviewer or essayist”. You could be an important predator, consuming flies, bees, ants, wasps and very occasionally (and remorsefully) butterflies. You may be fulfilling “significant cultural roles”.

(Fulfilling roles is a phrase I’ve always had difficulty with. It’s the aural pun that causes me a problem: I have an image of people filling bread rolls. Significant ones. But I digress.)

Stage 6 is the final stage. At stage 6 you have emerged. You have self-actualised. You are probably on the literature syllabus in schools and most ‘well-read’ people, even people who aren’t into poetry, have heard of you. However, you are still subject to predation by birds, lizards, frogs, spiders, fish, waterbugs, and even other large dragonflies disguised as mentors.

The writers of the Aberystwyth paper point out that “poetic emergence is distinct from poetic development: it is entirely to do with becoming prominent as a poet, rather than becoming a poet of better quality or worth.” They also observe that “poets sometimes jump stages, and sometimes go into reverse, but most reach what is called her a ‘plateau’ and remain thereafter at more or less the same point”. (I am writing this blog from a pleasant plateau partway through stage 5.)

Stages 1-3 are “emerging”. Stages 4-6 are “emerged”.

There are bands too (not the musical kind: bands as in categories). Band A: pre-collection. Band B: first collection. Band C: multi-collection. Publishers like these kind of bands.

Devolved voices also touches on factors that can affect the emergency (I know I am wilfully mis-using this term: it keeps me sane). These include prizes, fellowships, creative writing degrees, courses, mentorships etc. They talk about “tipping the publication see-saw” (another neat image if tipped up) and “premature anointing” (to be avoided at all costs).

This is a ‘discussion’ document – so do join the discussion, whether you are submerged, emerging or emerged. Facetiousness aside, it is interesting, well-written and easy to digest.

But I said it was a somewhat retro. What about the new ways? Regrettably, I think I am part of the old: most of what I do is nurture an editorial relationship with a few nymphs to help them move from stage 3 to stage 4 (the sort of thing Rialto Bridge pamphlets also mention and that the Mapping Contemporary Poetry authors approve – but then, they would.)

Things are changing. Poetry used to be literary, intellectual and dusty (though it was discussed in pubs, by men, with beer or whisky). Now the slams, the performance, the spoken word, the fun – these things are bubbling, and not only with the young. Some of the nymphs read the notices on publishers’ websites about ‘no unsolicited submissions’; they get fed up because what they write is nothing like what wins competitions; they set up their own presses; they do the business. Some of these enterprises will prove their mettle and will draw in participants of talent, ingenuity and new types of jaws and wings. They will be impatient (and why not?). They will be unreasonable.

As George Bernard Shaw said (the world consisted entirely of men in his day): “The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

I am never very sure about the word ‘progress’. It suggests things get better. I suspect they simply get different. Human beings develop hierarchies, and people find ways to ascend. When daunted by the survival of the fittest and fastest, it’s useful to remember all this is “entirely to do with becoming prominent as a poet, rather than becoming a poet of better quality or worth.”

Given the devious dragon-fly trafficking, I’m strongly reminded of a poem by James Reeves who, despite mentoring from Robert Graves, spent most of his life at stage 5 and worked very hard to stay there. I may well have quoted this before, in some other context (blog entries proliferate on this plateau) but I don’t care. Here it is.


Important Insects 

Important insects clamber to the top
Of stalks; look round with uninquiring eyes
And find the world incomprehensible;
Then totter back to earth and circumscribe
Irregular territories pointlessly.
Some insects narcissistically assume
Patterns of spots or stripes or burnished sheen
For purposes of sex or camouflage,
Some tweet or rasp, though most are without speech
Except a low, subliminal, mindless chatter.
Take heart: those scientists are wrong who find
Elements of the human in their systems,
Despite their busy, devious trafficking
Important insects simply do not matter.







Merriness in Midhurst

This week I flew away to visit my mother and sister in Midhurst. I did take some poetry submissions with me but I didn’t read them. Instead, I read through one of the anthologies I loved and grew up with, which sits in my mother’s bookcase: John Smith’s My Kind of Verse. Fascinating when you go back to these things to see where you first saw unexpected people: two of Paul Dehn’s poems, for example, are in that lovely anthology. So that’s where I knew them from!

This week I flew away to visit my mother and sister in Midhurst. I did take some poetry submissions with me but I didn’t read them. Instead, I read through one of the anthologies I loved and grew up with, which sits in my mother’s bookcase: John Smith’s My Kind of Verse. Fascinating when you go back to these things to see where you first saw unexpected people: two of Paul Dehn’s poems, for example, are in that lovely anthology. So that’s where I knew them from!

This week I flew away to visit my mother and sister in Midhurst. I did take some poetry submissions with me but I didn’t read them. Instead, I read through one of the anthologies I loved and grew up with, which sits in my mother’s bookcase: John Smith’s My Kind of Verse. Fascinating when you go back to these things to see where you first saw unexpected people: two of Paul Dehn’s poems, for example, are in that lovely anthology. So that’s where I knew them from!

It doesn’t rain in Midhurst apparently. Not like here. So we had a very nice time visiting beautiful gardens and I took our photograph on automatic through the teapots.


Moving Life with Teapot


There was serious work going on too though. For some time, a pamphlet has been in hand called Night Brings Home the Crowes. Written by my mother (Kathleen Curry), it tells as much of the story as we can recover (from her memories and a few other sources) of the Crowe family — that’s my mother’s grandmother and her nine siblings. It will mainly be of interest to family, but there is some lovely period detail that others will also enjoy, I think.

Anyway, one of our tasks this week was careful proof-reading, page by page, and collecting a few more photographs to go in. The publication, with luck, will be finished and go to the printer this week.

And yet another publication under scrutiny this weekend has been my own next collection, which John Lucas of Shoestring Press is publishing. It’s due some time in the autumn – perhaps October – and although I got it together, more or less, a good few months ago (in fact, last summer, I think), I put off finalising it until the ultimatum came.

Which it did, while I was dipping in and out of A Field of Large Desires, an anthology of Greville Press poems, brought out just a few months ago by Carcanet (I thoroughly recommend it — the contents are different from anything you will find elsewhere). Astbury’s Greville Press is, of course, chiefly and justifiably renowned for poetry pamphlets. In the preface to this book-length volume, Grey Gowrie says,

Poems are best read [ . . . ] with but few of their fellows. The great collections of great poets are useful for reference but hell to read. A slim vol is okay; a pamphlet best of all.

Increasingly, I agree. My Shoestring Press book will be a slim volume, but even at that, it’s weighing down the world with more poetry. I hope Plot and Counterplot justifies its place. We’ll see. When your main task has come to be publishing other people’s work, you end up feeling bizarrely guilty writing poems yourself. Like counselling people to smoke less, while cultivating your own cigar habit on the side.

Anyway, this week I’ll also be working on the Thomas Hardy pamphlet, amongst other things. Thankfully, the submission period is now over, so letters to poets are off the agenda, unless they’re poets in progress, as it were. I’ve been amused to find that several people have congratulated me for publishing Selima Hill’s winning pamphlet, which of course I did not. I haven’t even seen it: it hasn’t come in to Sphinx for review. Speaking of which, there are a couple of reviews nearly ready to go up too. Another task for today.

I’ll conclude with a bit of James Reeves (another under-rated poet) from the Greville Press Anthology. It’s titled ‘The Prisoners’, and every second line should be indented, but I can’t make WordPress do that for me (if anyone reading this knows how, please tell me):

Somehow we never escaped
Into the sunlight,
Though the gates were always unbarred
And the warders tight.
For the sketches on the walls
Were to our liking,
And squeaks from the torture-cell
Most satisfying.