David Wood’s poem ‘Brahms’ can be found here.
How did you come to writing poetry?
I began writing poetry very early in life. I wrote my first published poem when I was ten, and one year later was reciting epics in school. My love of and fascination for language goes back even further. I am not sure exactly when that translated into poetry. My mother was an exceptionally fine pianist, and gatherings around the piano occurred at home from when I was quite small.
What is the relationship, for you, between music and poetry?
For me, the relationship between music and poetry has always been an intimate one. Music expresses emotions more acutely than does poetry, but, if you like, in a more vacuous kind of way. I have always needed the two art forms in tandem.
Were you thinking of, or listening to, any of Brahms’ works in particular while writing ‘Brahms’?
I first came to Brahms through his fourth symphony, the triple concerto and the first piano concerto. Brahms came late to symphonic construction; he felt Beethoven’s presence beating at his back. He is, of course, a master of symphonic form, but his flowing romantic sensibility is in constant contention. When I was sixteen, and studying full-time at the Queensland Conservatorium, this presented no problem for me. But in later years it has and still does. I ‘rediscovered’ Brahms fairly recently through his solo piano works, as described in the poem Brahms, which are far more spontaneous than his larger works, and in his euphonious songs, opulent as a butterfly’s wing. The paradox remains that Brahms in life, like Beethoven, was a crusty old bachelor who longed for romantic life but was not particularly attractive to women. My poem on him underscores the dilemma of the artist in general, who must devote life energies to an uncompromising discipline, frequently at the expense of real life issues. With Brahms, this was certainly the case. He was a singular devotee to the Muse, an all demanding succubus which sapped his energy and attention.
How personal is the exercise of writing poetry for you?
For me, writing poetry is not all that personal. I do not much believe in the cult of personality when it comes to art, or to life, for that matter. Quite the contrary. I write best when I am a Zen nobody going nowhere. And when I am not fully well. Both scientists and theologians say that the universe came from nothing. For me, that nothing is not nihilistic, but the dynamic ground of being.
How do you achieve that kind of zen, or nothingness?
In my case, and I certainly can’t speak for anybody else, the creative patterns we experience in both life and poetry arise from the deepest level of relaxation as experienced in deep sleep. Its first manifestation is in the state of consciousness between sleeping and waking, either before going to sleep at night or very early in the morning. I presume that this state is what the Buddhists mean by emptiness. If I am in any way emotionally agitated the poem doesn’t work even if the subject I am working on is emotionally acute. The poem comes first as a kind of music, a rhythmic pattern transmuting to a central idea which I must write down before it vanishes again. Once the seed of the poem has been captured in a few words, the poem may come very quickly, or over a much longer period. The best poems, or what I consider to be my best, accrue layers of meaning, deepen and mature over time.
The initial emptiness remains in the space between the words required for the poem’s resonance. A poem is a dance of symbols over an abyss. It is a state of mind where everything matters and nothing matters, a celebration of the interplay of dark and light which comprises the human condition. The roots of poetry run deep in the earth which it requires for its constant regeneration and transcendence.
Lots of readers struggle to find a ‘way in’ to understanding poems. Do you have any tips for new poetry readers?
Readers should stop struggling to ‘like’ poetry. I do believe that this comes of it not being taught properly in school. Contrary to popular opinion, poetry is not just words. It is any spontaneous spark of intuition, frequently about the commonplace. Good poetry, as Houseman says, should make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Just think about all the things in life that do that for you – a lover’s kiss, a child’s laugh. That is poetry. Words are our common inheritance, a form of archaeology in which lies hidden the plethora of the human condition. As children, we are all natural poets. Both children and adults are singers in the cosmos of the God who sings, dancers in the garden of good and evil.