Jim Greenhalf/ Britain: A poem and an interview

All happened so normal. First I read by chance a poem of Jim Greenhalf published at the London Magazine while being at the flat of a very estimated and beloved Greek poet. I was so much excited by the writing that later was looking online for more information so as to enrich the meta-feeling – like metamorphosis- caused by the poem with some kind of knowledge. I was lucky. I found the email of Jim Greenhalf and the e-mail correspondence did start.

Some days ago, it was a pleasure learning from Jim that my poem ‘‘Gardener’’ – which has been published here from the 11th of October- reminds him of the movie Being There, with the late Peter Sellers playing the part of a gardener called Chance, who came to be thought of as a man of great wisdom. It was a pleasure because if poetry is the spur for cross-thinking, a lot of good things can happen. Here comes the poem ‘‘Socrates’’ by Jim Greenhalf as well as the interview I had online with him.

Jim Greenhalf


The struggle is to live with quiet gladness

in spite of weather, rent rises,

power bills, stock market fluctuations,

stupid or cowardly governance;

bad faith, cheap grace;

circumstances, time;

young blond barmaids

with plunging necklines.

Midwife of the questing mind,

professor of ignorance.

The way to wisdom is not

for those with secrets to hide.

The authorities got him

for immoral aiding and abetting,

as the English got Joan of Arc

for the heresy of cross-dressing.

More of a gargoyle even

than Paul Verlaine,

but purer than democrats and tyrants.

He had no possessions, no loot,

no off-shore investments in Persia.

What he had was shared with friends,

and when Athens was under military threat

he fought as a foot soldier.

He was sent to shine a light through posterity.

A thorny old bastard bare-heeled

among potsherds and

the broken amphora of history.

He accepted the state's poison ruefully.

The greatest discovery you can make in life

he said, as he wiped the hemlock from his mouth,

is yourself.

Jan/Feb 2008

Interview with Mr. Jim Greenhalf: About Wisdom and Poetry…

When did you write your first poem?its title?

J.G: At secondary school, when I was about 14, I wrote a comic poem called Fludd. In later life I was astonished to find that Robert Fludd actually existed; I think he was a minor English philosopher - I could be wrong. Round about age 18 I wrote a poem called Lesley Mitchell Day, a disingenuously innocent lyric on the subject of unrequited love. Lesley, by the way, was a girl. In England there is a masculine first name variation - Leslie. This 12-line piece opens my collection The Dog's Not Laughing: Poems 1966-1998.

Poetry doesn't have so many themes although the number of subjects may be astronomical. In my experience, poetry that survives the time of its creation, has the ability to cross national and cultural borders.

In which artistic movement would Socrates belong?

J.G: Ah, Antigoni, what an inquiring mind you have my lovely Greek; if only I had the scholarship to respond adequately to your question. Ignorant as I am - no false humility intended - my conviction is that I don't believe the old goat would have pastured on anyone else's hillside. He left the grassy slopes of Parnassus to egotists and fancy young men in love with their own reflection. Plato too, I believe, took completely the opposite view of poets to the pose affected by Shelley - that they are the unofficial legislators of the world. Only a spoilt young man living on unearned income would even think such a thing, let alone say it. Socrates was like the North Star, a loner in the firmament, but a guide to all Mankind.

Have you been translated? Do you believe in poetry translation or you are an amateur of the original sound as well as rythm?

J.G: I believe there is a lady professor of French literature at Charles University who has translated at least two of my poems into French. She saw and heard me perform them at a concert with Jaroslav Hutka, at the Literary Cafe in Prague, on May 11, 2007. The poems were: Frederick the Great and Voltaire Debate Truth and Beauty and The Difference Between Poetry and Everything Else.

Without translations where would any of us be? What would English literature be without the dramas, comedies and satires of the Greeks and Romans? Where would French literature be without them? What would James Joyce have done without The Odyssey on which to model the structure of Ulysses? By the way, I think it's a pity he used so much artifice to do it; contrivance can get in the way when it's over-done. Where would Boris Pasternak have been without his beloved Shakespeare? If nation is to talk into nation let them do it through their arts, not through the artifice of technocratic idiocies such as the European Union - empire building without the save grace either of a spiritual dimension as in the Holy Roman Empire or the political vision of Napoleon. Hitler is another matter.

Which question you hate to be asked? Was it included in the previous ones?

J.G: The question is most revile goes something like...What inspires me to write? Oh, you know, I would love to write but I just don't seem to have the time. How do I do it? I go away and die. Writing is not the ultimate purpose of Mankind, or humankind if you prefer. Serving, healing, feeding, supplying, repairing, defending, advancing, maintaining, loving, worshipping - these are the great purposes of life on the blue planet. I write because I'm, I have no head for heights and I can't swim; I write because no one taught me how to be a soldier or a missionary or an engine driver; I write because I never made it as a footballer. I write out of failure; but writing is no longer just therapy: I left that behind when I turned 40. Beckett said: "Fail better". And that's what I try to do: fail better next time.

What symbolises Socrates for you?

J.G: A goat. A goat feeds on nettles and water. A goat has no fear of heights and no fear of depths. A goat knows how to follow a difficult path, or create one, and live at peace with its lot under the clouds. Those born under the baleful sign of Capricorn are goats. I am a goat, although it does not follow that I am Socrates. I wish I had played football like Socrates, the great Brazilian star of the 1982 World Cup. But my style was more, shall we say, sporadic than Socratic.

How a city could be poetic?

J.G: 'How a city could be poetic?' is like your 'early of September', Antigoni: not quite correct gramatically, but all the better for being innocently wrong. If you had asked: 'How can a city be poetic?' I would have laughed. Europe is filled with consultants advising city authorities how they can regenerate using business and the arts (a little) to attract big bucks from the European Union and other sources. Well, a city may gain all the glory of the world and in the process lose its soul. If a city whores after the kind of free-market liberalisation that has caused so much damage to the United States, the United Kingdom and to other parts of the world, it will certainly lose much more than it gains in fast food franchises and apartments that few can afford.

Cities evolve through time. A street or a square may be planned and constructed; but the soul of a place cannot be designed on an architect's elephant board or computer screen. Berlin, Paris, London, Bradford each in its own way inspires poetry; but few would describe Bradford as 'poetic' the way they would Florence or the skyline of New York City.

A poet usually lives in the shadow, behind celebrities as poetry refers more to an existential identity rather than to a role playing game. Do you agree?

J.G: Yes. Poetry is about sinking wells into the oil fields of experience and pumping up the crude. Writing is the art of refining the crude - but not over-refining it.

Poetry can get benefit from information? You are also a journalist with a variety of awards.

J.G: You have placed 'poetry' and 'journalism' together, perhaps in juxtaposition to accentuate the difference between them. I would only say that journalism, which the late Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski and Anselm Hollo sometimes come close to - with great skill and panache is a more public function than the writing of poetry. However, the act of writing both requires common disciplines: writing to purpose and to measure (not necessarily rhyming and scanning); using appropriate words to deliver the meaning; editing out words that are either superfluous or grandiloquent.

As to information, well, I could say 'Your eyes are brown' or 'Auschwitz was a murder factory', or 'the EU is a political tyranny'. But if I say, 'Your eyes are as brown as Amontillado', then I am imparting something more to mere fact. The same applies to the other two examples.

Moral courage is subject to ethics (ethical action) instead of being applied on moral sense?

J.G: By definition 'moral courage' is active, not merely an intellectual category. 'Moral sense' may mean knowing the right thing to do; but knowledge alone does not always result in right action. The conflict between these two things - knowing and doing - is at the heart of almost all of Shakespeare's tragedies. And then what about doing the morally wrong thing - killing someone - for an ethically impeccable reason - to rid the world of a terrible threat? For me, courage is active, whether it means facing up to illness or distress or risking bodily injury by going to another's rescue. It also means dealing with the idea of mortality. The Socratic method, at least to this bear of alarmingly little brain, rests upon an inner strength derived from coming to terms with the fact of death. I believe Boethius took the same road, before the Roman state killed him.

Under which circumstances you write?

J.G: Usually the least propitious: in a noisy, germ-trap of an office; and alone after work, at weekends and while on annual leave. Unlike Mahler, I do not have three months of bliss every summer by a alpine lake; nor is there a dacha waiting in a leafy Moravian glade. I think as I walk city streets - me, my own private lyceum; I write as I work, letting disparate ideas and images come and go while I concentrate on something else; and when I am neither thinking nor writing, I wait for that little hidden light to come on, like the light in a fridge, to set me humming. These answers were first written out by hand this morning in the busy Diner of Salts Mill, Saltaire (google it). I write less at work than I used to because there is more work to do but fewer people to do it. Most of my writing is done at home, a rented apartment in Ilkley.

Wisdom and self-consciousness: what's their relationship?

J.G: Self-consciousness evolves through the natural processes of cognition. I believe that we are born with innate propensities, for language, for example. I have always felt antagonistic to the Behaviourist school of psychology which attributes human development to personal background and environment. Art usually defies the circumstances of its creation. How else could Van Gogh, personally penniless for the ten years in which he drew and painted until he killed himself at the age of 37, how could he had painted all those sunflowers and sunsets and pictures of fruitful nature? Behaviourists say that we only act in our own best interests. But that simplistic explanation is contradicted by prison. If human beings only acted in their best interests only prisoners of conscience and the persecuted would be in jail. I do not believe we are born as blank sheets of paper which life then encodes with a script we cannot change. Were this the case, children would not surprise (and sometimes alarm) adults by uttering words and phrases they have neither heard nor been taught.

Wisdom, however, can only come about as the result of lived experience. Received wisdom, like epigrams - 'Cynicism is knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing' (Oscar Wilde) is something different. A child may make adults weep with a glance and a prodigy may cause gasps of astonishment with amazing facility to play music or work through complex mathematical formulae; but the genius at the keyboard or log table is likely to be inexperienced and vulnerable in the way that Socrates was not. Wisdom is a construct that evolves from experience rather than a flash of intuitive insight. But intuition is NOT the polar opposite of rationality; it is, instead, another way of reasoning - with jump leads instead of deductive cause and effect and inductive effect to cause (the difference is rarely clear to this bear). Intuition is a flash of fire from the gods. Prometheus is another hero.

Dear Mr. Greenhalf , Thank you very much indeed.

*poems of Jim Greenhalf can also be read online: http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=10078

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