Interview with Alan Franks: winner of Wilfred Owen Association poetry prize
Interview with author and journalist Alan Franks, whose poem The Manor won the 2014 Wilfred Owen Association poetry prize.
Alan Franks is interviewed by Jan Woolf, No Glory's Cultural Co-ordinator. Alan will be reading his poems The Manor and Doomed Age at the No Glory benefit performance of Gentle Men with Robb Johnson and AL Kennedy.
Jan Woolf: First of all Alan, congratulations on winning the prize in this most significant of years. The Manor is a marvellous poem, containing a whole world; its oppressive opening atmosphere shattered by that 'single shot'. I wondered if that was analogous with the infamous assassination in Europe - and then of course the world?
AF: Yes, the single shot was definitely meant to have come from the starting pistol of the conflict, that is, the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo. With the great benefit of hindsight - now a century's worth - all the pieces were in place, in Europe and beyond, for a dreadful sequence of military confrontations. If you look at the causes, which are still a matter of disagreement among historians, you do run straight into that powerful combination of rivalrous nations and old alliances. Because of what happened next, there's no getting round it. There's no doubt that when I tried to write a poem about it - this poem - I was completely out of my depth in the historical analyses. So I did what, I guess, a lot of writers do, and I devolved the whole thing to an extended metaphor - a conceit in which a great but moribund estate is riddled with domestic tension and ripe for a catastrophic blaze. Then, as you do, I tried to pursue that line of narrative and see what happened. I wouldn't claim for a moment that the analogy doubles as some explanation. What it did do, while I was trying to write the thing, was give me the basis of a structure, that's all. I wasn't trying to recreate a war, just do the much smaller thing of writing a poem about an entrenched order poised for conflagration.
JW: Wilfred Owen brought insight, testimony and a terrible knowledge to us though his poetry - some of it as vivid as we can bear. Do you think that the job of the poet is to show us just so much before we switch off in emotional defence?
AF: I suppose the job of the poet is to come up with poems. I'm not sure that his or her function is to show us things that become too much to bear, although it's undeniable that some of the best poetic writing comes from circumstances or people in extremis. In that respect it's probably comparable to music, moving towards a realm that is actually beyond words. You're absolutely right in saying that Owen made it as vivid as we can bear, and yet even that pitch of awfulness fell short of the actual experience of those young men, German as well as English. It seems very clear to me that what was elevating Owen's art to something really sublime was - though this might sound mundane - journalism. In other words, he had the technique, the intellect, the word-music, and had been working towards poetic excellence for half of his twenty-five years. But then he walks into an ordeal which is, both figuratively and physically, front-line. It's a kind of gift; a grim one to be sure, but, as an offering of material, it's bountiful. Clive James has been saying similar things about the process of dying.
JW: You are in touch with Owen most profoundly, and almost, in the shorter poem 'Doomed Age' in dialogue with him. What do you owe Owen in your own development, not just as a poet but a humanitarian? (if you can forgive such a vague term)
AF: Yes, I suppose Doomed Age is a reply to Anthem for Doomed Youth. In that poem of his, he does offer answers to his own questions. But because he accepts that these answers are inadequate, the questions still hang there, a hundred years on. So I had a crack at them. I have to say I did feel pitifully inadequate in addressing them, and very nearly aborted the whole thing on grounds of hubris. But then it rather urged me on, as writing can, and after all this is only a short poem. Because Owen's is such a masterpiece of dignified protest and general calling-to-account, it's easy to overlook the fact that it is also a beautifully made sonnet, neither fully Petrarchan or Shakespearian in form, but with elements of both. As with his use of pararhyme in such poems as the magnificent Strange Meeting, Owen is pushing the so-called rules, but doing so from a position of knowledge and respect. What do I owe Owen? Same as the rest of us, I'd say; gratitude for his clarity and craft under fire. He was much in my life as a teenager. My father had been a paratrooper in the Second War and gave me a collection of Owen's poems as a kind of answer to the sort of questions I'd started asking about this country and the making of war. He (my father) was both proud and embarrassed, rather as I think Owen was.
JW: A more general question about the WW1 centenary. We at No Glory have been working very hard on the cultural front, as this is a most effective way of countering the style of this centenary which would have us 'celebrate a victory that defended democracy'. Something we are very keen on is that we learn the lessons of the time and apply this to warmongering today. Could you comment on how artists can address this?
AF: Yes, I think scepticism is a proper response to the defence-of-democracy claim. In the sense that our apparent victory in the First War kept intact a society which makes its laws through the Parliamentary process, then yes, OK. But doesn't this have the whiff of post-hoc justification? Isn't it closer to the mark to say that there were huge nationalistic surges running through Europe - not least in Britain - which were bound up with the cycles of industrial advance and imperial ambition? You ask a very timely question about lesson-learning. One of the related phenomena that worries me a little is the nature of our memorialising. I won't say we're guilty of necromancy, and yet we keep on finding some beauty of thought, some divinely tear-producing ache in the contemplation of those eternal ranks of dead young men. Youth, death, sacrifice, remember, nation, glory, fallen - the tangled dance of these words has a seduction that is live and awesome. In such a context it is easy for a poet like Owen to be falsely recalled, to be pressed into our battalions of barbed nostalgia. I don't think this would be a proper fate for him. Although his poetic voice may have been a world away from that of his contemporary Hilaire Belloc, Owen's verse was nothing if not cautionary.
It's said the old manor was tinder-dry that summer,
With heat holding the corners of the air
So hard above the overgrown parterre
And tangled banks, it skewed the view with simmering.
Through the long, prone afternoons the clicking
Of expanding pans and pails was heard.
The silence, through exhaustion, of the birds
Amplified the timbers' death-watch ticking.
Down the long perspectives of the passages
High-born souls nursed half-remembered grievances,
Strained to scan the lie of old allegiances
Forged in the fierce madness of intermarriage.
By the har-har, past the kitchen garden,
A single pistol shot, the day destroyed.
Fired by some strange disaffected boy
Through the heart of the unsuspecting warden.
The echo cracked the ceiling of the sky,
Which set a-shiver the chambered air indoors
And sent a draught down to the service corridors
Where restless household staff were standing by.
The Dowager, having dreamed herself to royalty,
Was authorising death-writs by the dozen,
Signing off some dim and distant cousins
Whose in-laws allegedly faltered in their loyalty.
Students of the subsequent disaster –
Themselves at odds through public vanity –
Unite in this belief; a vast insanity
Must have underlain such wanton slaughter.
Some pinned the blame on homo aristocratus,
That classy villain known for his receding
Chin worn down by centuries of inbreeding
To make him look deceptively innocuous.
This much is known; the building blazed and blazed
Until the walls were air and air was flame
And only the foundation shapes remained
As groundplan templates when successors raised
Their fresh construction. In the briefly binding
Calm that came, the estate's refurbished sky
Grew great with chastened migrant birds so high
You couldn't see them dropping their fresh kindling.
The passing-bells, well, since you mention those,
Their part was played by posthumous alarms
Whose high complaints belatedly arose
Above the still-young century's ravaged form.
For stuttering rifles with their hurried prayers
Our sacerdotal stammering doubled well.
To mask the want of sound memorial airs
We amplified the calling of the shell.
As for the candles, they were soon eclipsed
By suns a thousand times self-multiplied;
And while we drew our blinds to counter this,
We paled at such industrial suicide.
You would have been astounded by your fame
But you were gone from here and more's the shame.