Robert Graves touched the lives of many of us and his influence as a poet continues to resonate today in Deia and beyond. I talk to three poets who met and admired Graves.
I’m reasonably sure that I only became aware of Robert Graves because of my uncle Michael Cullup, a poet. One of the things that stuck in my mind was Mike saying that he often used to send his poems to Graves in Deia for him to read. Graves always wrote back and was unfailingly kind and encouraging. The idea that one poet could have this direct connection to a master was wonderful to me.
For the past month I’ve been the tutor for an online yoga for writers course of my own devising. The question of how those of us can help other members of what American writer William Burroughs called the Shakespeare Squadron has been very much on my mind.
I decided to talk to Mike about what he learned from Graves. Mike gave me the name of the English poet David Sutton, whom Graves championed. David was kind enough to answer my questions about his friendship with Graves.
Fresh and clear: Michael Cullup and Graves
Mike first started to write poetry when he was a boarder at Kimbolton School, Huntingdonshire, in the early fifties. The school published a book of his poems when he was eighteen. After National Service in the Royal Navy, he went up to University College London, and it was there that he began to read as much of Graves as he could get hold of. Subsequently, he began writing to him, and also corresponded with Graves’s friend, James Reeves. He has spent much of his life as a teacher of English, both in UK and overseas, but retired early to concentrate on writing. Mike published more than twenty books, including a book on Robert Graves’s poetry, based on the last collection: Collected Poems 1975. Seven of his own books have been collections of poetry.
Did you meet Graves, Mike?
I met Graves only once: in 1960. He was giving a poetry reading at the Festival Hall, chaired by his friend, the poet James Reeves. After the reading, I introduced myself and walked with Graves to his taxi. He was staying in Notting Hill and invited me to join him, but I didn’t want to force myself on his company.
At the time, I was trying to make sense of doing English Literature at university, and Graves’s book The Crowning Privilege was a breath of fresh air. I enjoyed what then appeared to be an anarchic approach to all the heaviness and solemnity, especially in the way Graves mocked Wordsworth, Tennyson, Yeats, Auden, and Eliot, among others. His poems, too, seemed so fresh and clear, and beautifully crafted, without being in any way ostentatious.
I still have great respect for Robert Graves as a poet, and love many of his poems. But I no longer have the same respect for his critical opinions. I think he was unfair to Wordsworth and Tennyson, and failed to see the genuine worth of Eliot and Auden. He was too nasty to Yeats, as well, although I’m no fan of Yeats as a poet.
What did you learn from Graves?
Graves made me see the importance of being an individual poet in your own right. He encouraged me to go my own way, without being intimidated by the so-called ‘great’ and the fashionable. He confirmed my belief in inspiration as the source of poetry, and the central position of the lyric in the history of English poetry. He also encouraged me to discipline my tendency to write too much, too easily.
Is he still important to you?
His influence is no longer a conscious influence, but I’m sure his views about poetry, the writing of poetry, and the personal sense of dedication and professionalism have stuck.
I no longer think of Graves as being a great, or ‘major’ poet. I think the way he wrote and the things he said in the 1940s and 50s had a real effect on English poetry, and was an important factor in the emergence of what were called ‘the Movement’ poets – poets like Larkin, Elizabeth Jennings, Donald Davie, and so on. I would rate Graves himself as being a better poet than all of the Movement poets except Larkin. His prose, especially The White Goddess had a big influence on Ted Hughes. I certainly think he has established himself as one of the more important poets of the Twentieth Century.
Have you been to Deia? If so, what did you make of the place?
Yes, I have visited Deia more than once. I found it magical, but I don’t know why. Visiting Graves’s house had a particularly powerful effect on me. His ghost still seemed to haunt the place. For me, it was a pilgrimage I had always wanted to make. I climbed up the hill to see his grave, and went down to the bay to see where he had swum. I don’t think it’s possible to really know Graves and his poetry without spending some time in Deia.
A cosmic coincidence: Graves and David Sutton
David Sutton was born in 1944 in Hemel Hempstead and educated at Hemel Hempstead Grammar School and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He worked as a computer programmer from1966 to 1998. David’s books of poetry include Out On A Limb (Rapp & Whiting, 1966), New & Selected Poems (Peterloo, 2005) and No Through Road (Greenwich Exchange, 2013). His Collected Poems is due to be published this year by Greenwich Exchange.
In his introduction to Out On A Limb, Graves explained that he first encountered David’s work while in hospital. For Graves, this was ‘a cosmic coincidence: it seemed accidental, but obviously could not be’. Graves went on to be extremely complimentary about David’s poetry, saying it gave him the ‘required gooseflesh’.
How did your first contact with Robert Graves come about, David?
It came in the form of a letter that landed on my doormat in the autumn of 1966. I was twenty-two, had just left university, got married and taken a job as a computer programmer, and was in a hurry to get to work, so scanned it briefly, having some trouble with the writing. ‘Who’s that from?’, said my wife. ‘Oh, just some old boy in hospital who’s been given a copy of Poetry Review with that poem of mine in it, he really likes it and wonders if I’ve got any more. I expect his resistance is a bit low, you get like that in hospital’. She picked it up and deciphered the signature. ‘Looks like “Robert Graves”’, she said. ‘Doesn’t he write himself, or something?’ ‘Oh’, I said. ‘Well, well’.
I can’t remember what I wrote back, but I had been an admirer of Robert’s poems since my schooldays and it may be assumed that I answered with some appreciation. A gap of a few months then elapsed – I didn’t want to be bothersome – but finally I did put together a further batch of poems and send it to Robert, now safely back home in Deia. He liked quite a lot of them, and was gently constructive about the ones he didn’t like, and so began an instructive period of four years or so when I would spring poems from the trap like so many clay pigeons and he would shoot them down or, sometimes, let them fly. Like most young poets, I had little idea of what was mine to write and what wasn’t, and I have no doubt much of the stuff I sent was dire: what Hardy said about life, ‘If way to the better there be/It exacts a full look at the worst’ certainly applied to my poetic progress.
I imagine it would be of little interest to others to go into details, but I will say that his advice was always practical, free from any taint of theory or ideology, and that the essence of his teaching could be summed up as never say anything for effect, only because it is true and because you have the right to say it.
I soon realised that Robert thought deeply about the technique of his craft in a way that I tended not to. I wasn’t really into all that prosody stuff, for example: for me composing was just a matter of muttering to yourself and if a thing didn’t sound right you kept muttering till it did. I put it to him that hawks did not read manuals on aerodynamics: they just got up there and flew. He said that that was fine as long as all was going well, but when things went wrong in a poem it was helpful to be able to analyse why.
When it came to matters of literary taste, I tended to be less influenced. I felt that Robert’s judgment of other poets could be a bit idiosyncratic: that he was unduly guided by personal prejudice and had a tendency to play the man rather than play the ball. I was surprised to discover that he had, for example, a great dislike for the work of W.B.Yeats. Surely, I put it to him, Yeats may have had his faults but for all that hadn’t he written some pretty good stuff? The answer was uncompromising and I did not pursue the matter. I was also a bit disappointed to find that he had no particular enthusiasm for the poems of Edward Thomas, that I loved above all. But at least we agreed about Robert Frost.
Did you ever go to Deia?
I never went to visit him in Deia, as many young writers seem to have done, but we did meet up three times when he came to stay in London. On the first occasion he was giving a reading at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and kindly included one of my poems. The second was a bit chaotic, as he had forgotten that he was supposed to be attending a wedding reception at the Dorchester, and I arrived where he was staying just as the party was about to set off. ‘Never mind’, he said, ‘you just come along too’. Having come by scooter I was not exactly dressed for the part, but he draped me in one of his old red cardigans (which to my mind did not do much to improve the situation) and off we went. At the hotel he introduced me to the bride, who I must say was very gracious about this uninvited guest considering she must have had other things on her mind that day, and in we trooped. I spent the time desperately trying to avoid being noticed. What was it I had read about the ninja art of invisibility? Something about keeping very still and making no sound…. I felt I was doing pretty well until we sat down for the meal and Robert rose to make a speech, looking in my direction. ‘… and may I just say we are privileged to have here with us today the most promising young poet I have known in a long time…’. Oh f—k.
The third meeting was less traumatic: I went up to London one morning and we walked together and talked of this and that. We discussed my job, and I quoted to him his words from The White Goddess: ‘The Muse demands full-time service or none at all’, pointing out how this was rather difficult to square with coming from a working-class background, wanting a home and children, having no source of income beyond what I could earn, and being somewhat proud to boot. ‘I really don’t know what X does in your situation’, he confessed. A new edition of his Collected Poems had just come out, and we looked through it with me picking out my favourites. ‘You know’, I said with cheerful patronage, ‘you’ve got fifty or sixty really good poems in there’. ‘No’, he said, ‘just five or six. That’s all you can really ask in a lifetime, five or six’. I tried to thank him for all he had done for me, but he stopped me. ‘No thanks between us’, he said, ‘just keep faith and don’t sell the pass’.
My first book of poems came out soon after, with an introduction by Robert, but then life became rather complicated for me: we had three children in four years, so my wife had to give up teaching, money was very tight on one salary, and poetry had to take a back seat while I helped out on the domestic front and tried to establish myself in the vastly more lucrative if vastly less satisfying business of writing computer programs. The correspondence petered out; I felt I had let Robert down and by the time I got going again at the end of the seventies it was too late to share any more poems with him. A pity: I would liked him to know that in the end I think I did manage not to sell the pass.
What place do you think Robert Graves occupies in poetry?
Well, clearly he was one of the major poetic figures of the last century. He himself distrusted the label ‘great poet’: to be called ‘good’ was enough for him, and to this I would add ‘enduring’. He did not write poetry for academic approval, he did not write it for a public audience, he wrote for the truth of things as he saw them, and really that’s all any of us can do. And while I understand that Robert may have been a complex and perhaps difficult character in some ways, I can only bear my own witness and say that to me he showed an unfailing kindness and generosity of spirit, and I feel privileged to have known him.
Thank you, David.
I have had the privilege of taking part in an open mic session down at S’Hortet in Deia. While I wouldn’t call myself a poet – I perform spoken word with a band of sorts that drowns out my more clumsy utterances – I did have what Graves would have called a ‘gooseflesh’ moment when I looked up at Deia church illuminated against the summer night sky. The poet Roger McGough, who has been spending time in Deia since the 1980s was MC. He was complimentary about one of my, ahem, poems. Some time later I interviewed him about his connection to Deia and Graves.
Roger told me this beautiful story about meeting Robert Graves for the first time:
It was 1984. We were having tea with the family. All the children were there. It was lovely. Robert didn’t say much. It was towards the end of his life. He just sat there in his big black Spanish hat, covered by a rug, looking out to sea.
When it was time for us to go, Beryl said “Robert, Roger’s going”. To me, she said “Give Robert your hand”. I did. He took it and wouldn’t let go. And he had a very strong grip.
Beryl laughed. “He always knows a poet’s hands,” she said.
I wondered if, actually, he thought he was holding a woman’s hand – one of his muses, perhaps. And, it has to be said, I do have rather a slender, shapely hand. But then I realised I was holding the hand of a man who’d met Thomas Hardy and Hardy had shaken hands with Tennyson and so on, back through the centuries. That was something.
Having this connection with Robert got me into the poetic magic of the place, as you can imagine. It was very much Robert’s town then. He liked to see the stars clearly at night so there were very few lights. Unfortunately, this also meant that people were always falling over.
It just occurred to me that I must have shaken hands with Roger that night. Which means…