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Harry Ricketts: Strange Meetings

Writers and Readers 2012
Harry Ricketts: Strange Meetings

Reviewed by Pip Adam

A couple of years ago I became a little obsessed with Rudyard Kipling. My PhD focuses on the language of structural engineers and Kipling kept coming up as ‘the engineer’s poet’. I bumped into his poem ‘Sons of Martha’ again and again in discussions about the intersection of engineering and imaginative literature.

They say to mountains “Be ye removèd.” They say to the lesser floods “Be dry.”
Under their rods are the rocks reprovèd—they are not afraid of that which is high.
Then do the hill-tops shake to the summit—then is the bed of the deep laid bare,
That the Sons of Mary may overcome it, pleasantly sleeping and unaware.

Kipling also wrote an amazing short story from the point of view of a ship, not a sailor on the ship – the ship itself. I mentioned Kipling to someone and they said, ‘Oh, Kipling, so you must talk to Harry’. So I emailed Harry Ricketts and he agreed to meet and it remains one of the best conversations I’ve ever had. I wrote for weeks with Kipling as a character based solely on that conversation.

I guess the reach of Ricketts’ work, is at once a gift to a chair of a festival session and a problem. How to fit such a massive amount of work into one hour? Ingrid Horrocks began the session by managing our expectations. She was not, she said, going to talk about ‘everything in the world’. It was a nod to the previous session but I always feel like you probably could talk to Ricketts about almost anything and it would be interesting. In the end the conversation centred mainly on two of Ricketts most recent works: Strange Meetings: The Poets of the First World War and his latest book of poetry Just Then, which was launched by VUP at their publisher’s party last Saturday night.

Horrocks starts by pointing to the popularity of literary biography and asks Ricketts what the appeal is both to the readers and to him as a writer. He plots the hay day of literary biography saying it got very popular in the 1970s and remained popular until about five years ago, he thinks it’s tailing off now. He believes it became popular largely because of the type of novel that was being produced during this time. If you look at nineteenth century fiction is often follows the arc of a life but fiction in the 70s became twistier and more complicated. There is a thirst for the arc of a life and literary biography provides this arc and a way of exploring a writer’s work as part of that arc.

Why do we want to know about the arc of a life? Horrocks asks. Perhaps it’s is interesting in relations to our own lives, Ricketts suggests. It might be something that interests us more and more as we look at the arcs of our friend’s lives. Like you might think a person looks to be on a clear path somewhere and then their life takes a different turn. You think you know the arc but it surprises you. That might be why books like Richard Holmes’ Dr Johnson and Mr Savage are such a great read. We think we know the story of the man but Holmes’ book explores the period no one knows about – when Johnson was in his twenties, when he was becoming Samuel Johnson. Horrocks talks about Holmes’ symbol of ‘a dark night of people walking together’ and his idea of the biographer as a Ferryman or a person haunted by their subject. How does Ricketts chose the people he writes about?

Ricketts goes back to his childhood to explain how he came to write about Kipling. His father was in the army and they moved around a lot. They were in Malaysia and Hong Kong and often places that felt like they were at the end of the Empire. As an ‘end of empire kid’, he says, he was also encountering the end of the Kipling world as well. He says he has mixed feelings about Kipling and that helps he thinks. He admires some of his work intensely, he says people often disparage Kipling on a very narrow front. But he finds some of Kipling’s opinions unappealing, like his ideas of Empire and race. he thinks good biography often comes out of mixed feelings like this. It is no good to write about someone you adore completely or you risk writing hagiography but it is equally non-productive to choose someone you hate. So mixed feelings are good in biographic writing.

Horrocks turns to Strange Meetings, it’s a group biography, did it start that way? How did it come about? Ricketts says that Kipling took him all the 90s so when he finished he was unsure what to do next. A friend of his said, Why not write about the first world war, we often talk about the poets. The idea appealed so he began but was finding it very hard to organise the work. He had a dozen or so poets and some clumps to loosely place them into but no ordering mechanism. That’s when he encountered a stroke of luck in the form of a book called A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen. It was a book about American artists and writers and centred around meetings. Then he realised he had a meeting between Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon at the beginning of the war and a meeting between David Jones and Sassoon in 1964 where they talked about the war. These two meetings bookend the work and the time between is punctuated with other meetings. The meetings take all sorts of forms. Edward Thomas’ had to review Rupert Brooke’s 1915 book of poetry which came hot on the heels of Brooke’s death and at the height of his fame. It put Thomas in an awkward spot. Firstly what of Brooke’s life could he reveal and secondly he had some reservations about the poems and in the height of the hysteria around Brooke how could he publish reservations about the work of the ‘great war poet’? Ricketts says through this lens of the ‘strange meeting’ he was able to speculate: what if Owen had not died, what if Sassoon had. Both Owen and Thomas were at a training camp at the same time and Thomas must have instructed Owen in map-reading. There’s no evidence of this, but Ricketts presents three kinds of meetings they might have had: one which it is probable they had, one which is less probable, and one that is the meeting everyone hopes they had but they almost definitely did not.

Ricketts reads a section from Strange Meetings which includes a description of his own walk around the hospital where Ivor Gurney was a patient. Horrocks asks about his decision to put himself in the book to the extent he did. He says he felt, with a group biography, he couldn’t intrude himself as a constant presence that would have been wrong. But he did feel at a few points he wanted to make a personal connection, to give the book a slightly different take so he could bring these wonderful, sad people closer to the present. He says he felt this was necessary because it is hard to come at these people as human because they are such iconic figures.

What about the other projects, Horrocks asks. Does the poetry come from a different place to the biographic writing, she touches on the fact that Ricketts was not born in New Zealand, she asks about a reach to some other place? Ricketts explains that when he came to New Zealand in 1981 he noticed a lot of writers doing different things. In England people were either novelists or poets but here people moved around writing different modes and he found this liberating. He isn’t sure he thought this consciously but he certainly happened at a subconscious level.

Horrocks turns to Just Then and points out how the book embodies a number of different modes: life writing, anthology, poetry. How did that come about? Ricketts says that poets often write poems which are published in a journal and then don’t find another home and some of the poems in Just Then fall into this category. He says that sometimes the poems bridge a gap between you and people who live far away. And then he says that form is often very useful. Like form can spur your genius in a way. Not so much in setting out to write a villanelle or a pantoum but in the way sometimes rhyme or another structure will start to gradually appear and it can sort of egg the poem on in a direction you don’t expect. Where do the poems come from? Ricketts says he can’t write fiction, he’s said more than once in the conversation. He spent a year trying to write a novel put found he had ‘no aptitude’ for being a novelist. He says that he has found that with prose writing, the writing he does for the biographies and non-fiction, that if you sit long enough at a desk you can write it but with poems it’s more an involuntary process. He describes it as ‘lots of nothing happening but then something flicks a switch and it’s on’. He quotes Elizabeth Smither who said, ‘You’re a poet when you are writing poetry but in between you’re just Elizabeth Smither’.

Next he reads ‘At the Getty’ a poem from Just Then explaining that the poem started off being about a place but when he returned to the poem something intervened that he didn’t expect.

There are questions from the audience. There is a fullness of tone in Strange Meetings yet in the poetry there is a sparseness. How does he choose what to leave in and what to take out of the poetry? Ricketts replies that he fiddles around a lot. He gets something happening, then mucks around for ages until the capacity to muck around runs out.

The next person refers to Fiona Farrell’s The Broken Book how it deals with the inability to speak about the failure of words in traumatic situations and she wonders if any of the war poets experienced this. Ricketts says, some poets were driven to write by the war. Sassoon for instance was a nominal poet before the war, he was a ‘foxhunter by day and a poet by night’. But the war made him angry, it jolted him into something he never equalled again. Owen as well, at the start of the war he must write about beauty but he turns into a different poet. They both became poets they could never have become under any other circumstances. But, he says, the war must have shut up a lot of others. David Jones for instance didn’t write any poetry until a decade after the war and it wasn’t published until well after that.

The final question really interests me, someone asks to what extent Brooke can be claimed as a First World War poet considering he never saw battle? Ricketts says Brooke saw a little bit of action late in 1914 so he wasn’t completely without war experience. But his poems are a lot about preparing himself for war, so they are war poems in that sense. Edward Thomas didn’t like them, he thought Brooke claimed an association with a national feeling that he hadn’t had. There is a late snippet of a poem by Brooke which he wrote and set aboard the carrier ship. There is an amazing line about the people around him already being ghosts. Ricketts finishes by telling us that Brooke spent Xmas 1913 in New Zealand.

There were many other amazing stories about the war poets in this session but I haven’t included them because they’re in Strange Meetings and it really don’t want to spoil anyone’s reading of the book.