Interview in The Wolf, April 2009
Questions by James Byrne
Unlike previous Wolf interviews—where I like to refer to as many books as possible in a poet’s oeuvre—I’m going to ask questions that relate to your most recent collection Darwin: A Life in Poems. I’ve just finished reading Darwin and found the experience different from the way I’ve read almost every other poetry collection. Usually (like most readers) I refuse the chronology of a book of poems, preferring to dip in and out, sometimes by instinct alone. But with Darwin, I was captivated by the near-seamless transition between moving from one poem to the next. I read it straight through for fear of falling out of the timeline. You’ve skilfully divided the book into key sections of Darwin’s life and I wonder about your own chronology in writing the poems—did you begin with childhood poems and move through?
I had two commissions. One was very urgent for the Natural History Museum, not for the ‘Big Idea’ exhibition that’s on now, but for the one that is coming out later in the year, which is about Darwin’s wonderful book TheExpression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872. Mark Haddon had been commissioned for this as well and both of us weren’t quite sure what they wanted. We were shown the storeroom and I wrote several poems from that visit, but then I fixed on the childhood. Since the exhibition was about ‘Expressions’, and since Darwin lost his mother at the age of eight and repressed all memory of her, I suddenly thought that the idea of expression was really important in his life. As in Of course, it’s really important in poetry, too.
I knew I had another commission in the wings—twenty poems for the Bristol Festival of Ideas. And I realised in late May last year that I could do the whole thing, maybe. I spoke to my new editor at Chatto and she said that it could be published on Darwin’s birthday, February 12th. And I thought…Oh, my god!
So I began reading Darwin’s Autobiography and found the chapter ‘Memories of Childhood’ very useful for the early poems. I found this lonely, timid little boy in Shrewsbury, who was raised Unitarian. I used a lot of ideas from my cousin Randal Keynes’ book Annie’s Box. Randal made me understand the feelings that Darwin would have had growing up and how this would come to bear on his later life. My poem ‘He Hangs Out With a Taxidermist’, for example, draws on his insight that Darwin would have heard firsthand accounts of tropical jungle first from an ex-slave, whom he asked to give him taxidermy lessons in Edinburgh. This is answered in the ‘Journey’ section, when Darwin has a quarrel with Captain Fitzroy about slavery.
Early on, there is a passage where you extend from Darwin’s Autobiography: ‘Stones, coins, franks, insects, minerals and shells.’ / Collect yourself: to smother what you feel, / recall to order, summon in one place; making like Orpheus, a system against loss.’ (‘The Miser’, Chapter One, IV). The opening poems are deeply affected by the premature death of Darwin’s mother, but this quote might also be compared to the archival instincts of the poet. For Darwin, collecting was apparently ‘innate’. How far do you think this is true? Might Darwin’s early investment in studying his ‘beetles’ have stemmed from a refusal to mourn?
It could well have done. Biographers divide over how important it is, that he lost his mother so young. The psychoanalyst John Bowlby attributes the whole of Darwin’s thought to the loss of his mother, which is slightly overdoing it! Certainly he was trying to collect himself in the face of what was unbearable.
The idea for the passage you mention came to me in Crete when I working frantically hard on a poetry course there. I had a rare half hour, away from the class, and looked into the psychology of collecting. And I thought, ‘this is like a poet’. Orpheus was collecting animals and trees round him, making his own ‘system against loss’. Rilke picks up on this in the Sonnets to Orpheus.
But, yes, there is a deep sense of loss that goes through Darwin’s work. In 1851, when his ten-year old daughter Annie died, the bleakness of his biological vision struck home: we are alone with our biology; new species appear when old ones are destroyed. The weaker go to the wall; it is a survival of the fittest and a destruction of the least fit. In some ways the Origin of the Species is a very sad book because it is about extinction. From his first insight into natural selection, in 1838, he is clear that ‘new species come through famine, destruction and death’.
I enjoyed the consistent Miltonic references in the book. It was surprising to discover that Darwin read Paradise Lost feverishly during his five years on the Beagle. Of course, the family has its fair share of poets, from grandfather Erasmus, to Frances Cornford, to yourself. Did Darwin ever have any pretensions to be a poet?
Not a poet, though, as I mention in ‘The Extra Eye’ (published in the last Wolf), he joked he could write a poem about a Drosera. But he loved Shakespeare, Byron and Milton. And on the Beagle he did turn himself into a passionately lyrical writer on nature, with a keen sense of what he called ‘the sublime’. There is a vital connection between poetry and science, in their ferocious attentiveness to details and precision.
As the great-great-granddaughter of Darwin, did you try to resist writing this collection, or was it inevitable?
I hadn’t thought of doing it until Clara at Chatto and the commissions pushed me towards it. However, once I was into the book, it seemed, at times, like automatic writing, something coming from outside.
Because of the family connection you must have been somewhat nervous about the public reception to this book, particularly with this year being the bi-centennial of Darwin’s birth?
Yes, partly because I wrote it so quickly. I’d like to refine some of the poems to make it tidier. The bulk of the Galapagos ‘Journey’ section (14 poems) were drafted in a weekend. Found poems can sound rather arch, so I was nervous about whether they stood up. The poets Fiona Sampson, David Harsent and Daljit Nagra gave me some excellent editorial advice, which helped a great deal.
I suppose I was also a little nervous about what my brothers and sister would make of the book, whether they might think I was just cashing in. Most Darwins are quite reticent and I am only one of 72 great-great-grandchildren!
Several of Darwin’s children wrote biographies or memoirs recalling the life of their father. Your own grandmother, Nora Barlow, did an unexpurgated edition of Darwin’s Autobiography that included a passage on his religious doubt, which Darwin’s son Francis had omitted from the previous version. How aware were you when writing about Darwin’s life of the idea of biography as an ongoing project, as a life that is continually revised?
I don’t think I thought of it like that. I was just engaging with him. It was more a voyage of discovery for me—the letters he wrote through his life are so tender and funny, warm and real. The geologist Richard Fortey, who used to be President of the Royal Geological Society (of which Darwin was Secretary in 1838, when it was located at Somerset House where I wrote many of these poems), said, ‘we all have our own Darwins’. And I suppose that’s true.
You include factual, biographical and historical notes in the margins of many poems. How much does the embedding of ‘fact’ around the ‘main’ text mean to draw into question the ‘factualness’ of the poems’ content? How difficult was it to decide which points belonged in the margins?
What was difficult was to make sure that I hadn’t erroneously attributed anything to Darwin. I was very anxious to make it clear when it was my interpretation of how things felt for him. I played around for a while with italics but it didn’t look good. As for the basic factual information: no one wants poems that buttonhole you to tell you things. When Jassim—a Kurdish guy from Iraq who helps me with computers and hosts my website—showed me how to make a ‘text box’, I felt liberated to put the knowledge-stuff outside the poems. Putting text in the margins, like Coleridge did in ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and more recently Alice Oswald in Dart, gave me a scaffold, so the poems could be as fluid as they liked inside.
Did your sense of Darwin’s personal character change, if at all, through writing this book?
Oh yes! it was enriched deeply. I found out how funny and tender he was. Not just Darwin’s character, but also of his wife Emma. At its heart, my book is a love story and I began to get much closer to her. I was asked to introduce Edna Healey alongside Randal at the Cheltenham Festival, so I’d read her biography (The Inspirational Wife of a Genius), which helped a lot. And I began to see my grandmother and my mother—even myself—in terms of Emma. Like them, she was very anti-humbug, for instance. She hated pretension, was jokey and – like me – untidy.
Another central narrative in the book is Darwin’s struggle with religious faith. You mention in the introduction that he experienced a ‘slow denial’ of ‘Christianity as a divine revelation’. Emma, on the other hand, was strongly Christian and their differing views on religion are poignantly written in poems from Chapter Four (‘She Writes Him a Note About Salvation’ and ‘He Leaves a Message on the Edge’). In the final section, the poem ‘The Open Window’ describes religion as ‘the burned heart in its thorns’. How important was it to balance his search for provable truth in his own work, whilst emphasising a marriage based on different beliefs, but one lived devotedly and in trust?
Well, they negotiated the struggle. We only have the letters now. We don’t know what was said. She did say ‘he seems to be putting God further and further off’. But not away completely.
Origin was written under pressure, because he got a letter from his junior colleague and fan Alfred Russell Wallace (I was keen to include Wallace in the book), describing a good idea he’d just had—which was identical to Darwin’s insight of the mechanism by which evolution worked, natural selection. Which Darwin had kept secret for twenty years. So Darwin had to drop the ‘big species book’ (he was only halfway through and it had already taken five years) and write a book that simply demonstrated the principle of natural selection. He didn’t mention Man in it, or God. I think Emma was relieved about this.
The first edition of the Origin of Species is the best. He did try and refine it afterwards, taking on the arguments provoked by earlier editions. And Huxley’s defence of it, which did challenge the Church. It was Huxley who stirred up the arguments about the omission of Man, which led to the Oxford debate etc. Darwin himself took on human origins twelve years later, in The Descent of Man, by which time most educated people, including leaders of the Church, had accepted evolution. He never claimed to be an atheist, he said he was agnostic. He wrote nature with a capital N and saw it as acting upon people in a way that some people would say divinity acted, or fate. But the Origin was about the mechanism, the principle of evolution.
As for reactions, there’s a deep narcissism, even today, which makes some people find unbearable the idea that we descend from the same ancestors as the apes. It’s more than religious, because there are non-religious people who can’t stand it either. In his own time, Darwin knew he was up against that kind of irrationality.
Considering his search for a ‘mate’, Darwin deliberates on the pros and cons of marriage in ‘The Balance Sheet’ (Chapter Three, IV). His comments—though apparently in jest—aren’t very favourable to women. The possibility of a wife conjures…‘An object to be loved & played with. Better than dog’. Children represent a chance to be remembered in a ‘second life’. But as father and husband Darwin comes across as devoted in every way. You mention how he made studies of his own children for his research and the devastation he felt on the death of his child Annie. How dramatically did being a father and husband influence the work and life of Darwin?
You’re forgetting his humour! He could often be self-deprecatingly very funny.
Darwin was interested in life in all forms, a plant curling in the corner of a room, a dog at the table, or his own children. His family were an extension of this. For example, his work on facial muscles in The Expressions of the Emotions goes back to notebook entries of 1838, when he was studying Jenny, the orang-utang at the Zoo. He wondered then if facial muscle which expressed feeling could be a link between humans and apes. If they make the same expressions, perhaps they have the same feelings too. This was anathema to people who thought animals didn’t have feelings like us. Even back in 1838 he was asking the question—which also forms a poem section in the book—‘What is an emotion?’
In your introduction to The Poem and The Journey you assert that journeys are bound up with knowledge and have the capacity to change a person. Which experiences of travel might have changed your life irrevocably, and how?
The journeys for Tigers in Red Weather were definitely life-changing experiences. And it was then that I began to be more influenced by Darwin in my own work.
I was in Laos researching for the book and I didn’t realise that I would have to kayak through rapids for three days to get to the Mekong River. I’m OK at walking, but I hate anything like sport, and I’m not keen on water. With an ex-waiter called Toh, I set off in this thing that looked like a rubber turkey baster—I was sure we were going to capsize! On the banks there were lianas and jungle, dense and beautiful and extraordinary. But there weren’t any animals, because the people who live there kill and eat them. Animals are emptying from South-East Asia at a rate of knots. They eat everything, even otters! And I realised that here I was, 170 years later, on a different continent, but in tropical forest like Darwin, not learning how species came to be, but how species become extinct. There was a nasty symmetry about that.
Darwin wrote in the ‘Retrospect’ section of his Journal of the Beagle that, despite all the sicknesses and perils involved, travel allowed him a sharpening of the senses and ‘excitement from the novelty of objects’. According to Sidonie Smith’s book on travel writing, Moving Lives, ‘the effect of grand touring was at once democratizing […] and differentiating—the grand tourist was distinguished as another avatar of the newly enlightened man…’ At the time of Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, the ‘grand tour’ was still seen as, at best, hero-making and, at worst, as essential to a gentleman’s education. When Darwin returned from the Beagle he was something of a new celebrity in science circles. How was the Beagle journey Darwin’s self-designed curriculum? Was it where he got his best education?
Yes, it turned Darwin into a writer and a scientist. He says at one point: ‘When I was on the Beagle I trained myself to bring everything that I was thinking about to bear on one particular thing I was looking at and vice versa and I’m sure it was this that allowed me to do anything I have done in science.’ So it’s a fantastic kind of genius connectiveness. He held so many things in his mind and was connecting things all the time whilst travelling, whether it was an invertebrate, a fish, a reptile, a fossil or a leaf.
Several previous travellers were important to him. Geologists, ornithologists— Alexander Von Humboldt is one example of a vital personal travel narrative. Darwin was seeing things no other scientist had seen. Fortey said that even if he’d done nothing else for the rest of his life, geologists would still revere him for his work on the formation of coral reefs.
Because of the Darwin publicity this year, surely your readership will now be as varied as at any time in your life as a poet. What freedoms and responsibilities does that bring?
I did a talk and reading in Derby recently and the people came up to me afterwards and the audience weren’t used to poetry at all. Funnily enough, these poems make something more accessible, for once, rather than less. Hopefully that will be good for poets who want to be read more widely.
And where might your work go next…?
I’m halfway through a new poetry collection, which has had to take a back seat. I’m also finishing a novel that revolves around King Cobras. And I have to write up the Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures, ‘On Not Saying Everything’, which I gave in Newcastle last year. But the next big thing is on animal migration and human immigration.