Michael Symmons Roberts, whose latest collection Drysalter won both a Costa Book Award and the Forward Prize for Poetry, visited the LBC as part of Maitreyabandhu’s Poetry East series. In this excerpt from the evening’s interview he talks about the ‘loss’ of his atheism, the relationship between his faith and his poetry, and what poetry itself might be for…
Maitreyabandhu: You’re on record as calling yourself a ‘struggling believer’. Your poems seem to have at their heart a doubting search for redemption. Wallace Stevens said that ‘After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is the essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.’ It’s interesting that you haven’t abandoned that belief, but poetry is still part of life’s redemption for you. I wondered if you could say more about faith as an animating force for you in the poems?
Michael Symmons Roberts: I love Wallace Stevens but I’ve always slightly struggled with that notion – I don’t think that art takes the place of religious belief. And I don’t think that art has in the truer sense redemptive power. But for me it’s part of the exploration and celebration of the possibility of truth – glimpses of truth and ultimate reality. When I realised I was losing my atheism I had a real panic that my poems would somehow become blandly devotional. And of course that was incredibly naïve. When you look at poets who were working from profound faith – in the twentieth century, John Berryman’s Dream Songs; Robert Lowell wrestling with his Catholicism; W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot – there are countless examples. The struggle never goes away. And the idea that you ever reach a plateau where all the poems do is shine a light on the beauty of the belief – it just doesn’t happen. And once I stopped worrying about it, the relationship between my faith and my poetry seemed irrelevant, because I neither avoided those themes and ideas nor courted them. It was just part of me.
Reading Drysalter, George Steiner’s book Real Presences came strongly to mind. At the end of it he says that ‘What I affirm as the intuition is that where God’s presence is no longer a tenable supposition, and when His absence is no longer felt – indeed, an overwhelming weight of that absence – certain dimensions of thought and creativity are no longer available.’ I wonder whether that’s something you would agree with.
It’s a key quotation for me. It connected with me on a profound level because as an atheist I was obsessed with the absence, and then became obsessed with trying to find out what the presence might be, and then with glimpses of it. And all the poems and the poets that I admired the most were aware of that – that going out on to that edge where the presence or the absence is felt, was where the finest art seemed to come from.
This is one of those questions we always finish with – what is poetry for? Why do it? Is it religion now? Is it, as Stevens says, a place for the sacred now, the only place left?
The sacred is slightly different. I don’t think it’s a surrogate God… I think it can approach sacredness. I’m not claiming any of that for my own work. Some of the poems I’ve most admired from the past, poems by John Donne for instance, can be and often are used by people in their own devotion and prayer and so on. Seamus Heaney talked about poetry as an art form that had never fully been secularised. And that’s why you don’t hear extracts from novels read out at funerals very much! At moments of great love, or loss, people tend to reach for the particular language of poetry. So I do think it has an odd and not quite secular role in the culture, which is interesting. Where I suppose I’m wary of poetry, indeed any of the arts, is where people talk about it as a great ‘civilising force’. Partly because I think that’s a huge burden to put on a poet or a poem – that it’s going to actually change someone or somehow broaden their mind or make them a better person – but also because history rather dramatically suggests that that’s not the case. Some of the most sublimely ‘civilised’ people in the twentieth century did the most horrendous things. But I think I read poetry because it connects me with, and gives me glimpses of, the sacred, the metaphysical, the real. And the best poems surprise you in the way that they do that.