2: On Sex, Love, and Poetry


Melbourne, 13 August 2018

Interview with Dr Paul Monk

Saturday September 1, 2018

00:00 [Music - Angie, Rolling Stones]


00:30 That was the legendary Mick Jagger singing his wistful song, Angie, about a love that had slipped away. I've been fascinated about the elusive and profound nature of love ever since I read The Road Less Travelled by American psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, when I was a teenager. It's a stunning and mature work which, among other things, makes the distinction between sexual desire and romantic love.


00:55 I decided to interview my friend, Paul Monk, about this topic because aside from being a poet who has written a lot about love and infatuation, his own life has been a kind of road less travelled.


01:05 Nick: So, Paul, if you were to sum up love, you know, in a succinct manner, how would you do so?


01:08 Paul: Well, you know, as a poet I could - perhaps later I will - wax lyrical about that but it seems to me that there is a folk wisdom about this and I would be inclined to distil it into two quite simple maxims. They're not sentimental ones.


01:17 The first is that love will make a fool of you, but life is bleak without it. I think each in our own way we do experience the truth of this and it goes back a long time.


01:23 The second is that there is no remedy for mortality. We age, we die and that's in the best case, and the losses that are entailed in aging and dying are poignant. The things that are most poignant are the loss of the things and the people that we love.


01:42 Between those two maxims it seems to me one might claim to have summed up the importance of love to human beings and the depth of feelings that it stirs so that would be my summary, if you like.


01:50 Nick: Do you feel as though you’re able to articulate those two maxims as succinctly and eruditely as you have done so just now, having lived a lifetime in which you have experienced love and romance and intimacy and desire, and all various facets of human intimacy as opposed to when you were maybe 18 and sort of just setting out on life...


02:15 Paul: Absolutely. I mean, look, I would say - and I speak from personal experience in this - when you're 18/19/20, even well into your twenties, and people offer you stuff from wisdom literature or in many cases lines from poetry or offer you advice, it can sound cliched and weary and not very interesting because you are just - your hormones are raging, and you want love, you want passion, right? Everything in your being is screaming out for it.


02:49 After you've lived a few decades and lived and loved, you begin to understand why there is poetry and what is the difference between wisdom and superficiality and, you know to perhaps quote something that's overquoted, it was I believe John Lennon who said, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans," and that's absolutely been true in my case.


03:07 I had many plans and most of them came unglued. I had many loves and most of them came unglued and along the way I kept learning, and that's why such maxims now mean a great deal to me. They're not empty.


03:19 Nick: Yeah, something sort of comes through in those maxims but also in our various conversations is this - and the reference to the M. Scott Peck's work as well - is this dichotomy or definitional difference between love and sexuality or love and infatuation. Scott Peck famously refers to it as ‘the illusion of falling in love’. If you could set up the difference between love and desire, I mean, how would you do so?


03:49 Paul: Well, I think we need to think or let me put it more generously, we can think for the sake of clarity about this subject in terms of a kind of pyramid with three steps. The first is the biological world. Sexuality is biological. It's absolutely fundamental and the whole animal and plant kingdom is full of sexuality. Every spring, there's blooms to life and animals getting into the mating season.


04:10 The second level is the distinctively human. What is it that makes us any different from any other animal when it comes to attraction, to display, to courtship, to mating, the reproduction?


04:19 The third beyond those basic human characteristics is what is it that is possible for human beings, what heights can we rise to in the kind of love we can experience and give to others? And we might perhaps make progress by addressing those three steps, one after another.


04:35 Nick: So, if we were to begin with the biological - you referenced spring. It is the first day of Spring today in Melbourne though you wouldn't know it by the freezing cold temperatures outside. 


04:42 Paul: It's a Melbourne Spring, after all.


04:43 Nick: It is a Melbourne Spring indeed. It keeps you on your toes but if you were to give a lot of biological basis for sexuality and thereafter love and intimacy, how would you do so?


04:54 Paul: Well, if you look at the poetry, the song, literature of virtually every human culture on earth, one thing that springs to the eye straight away or the ear if you will is that sexuality constantly draws on metaphors from the natural world - of spring growth, of the winter of lost love, of the beauty of flowers and trees, of the magnificence of animals and their courtship rituals, of the beauty of various kinds of animals and their display, and human beings themselves of course give flowers in romance and dress themselves in finery and they display and they compete. So, this is age old.


05:50 What we've discovered in the last 150 years or so is the whole science of biological evolution which has thrown a lot of light on what's going on in the plant and animal world, on the nature of sexuality and has given us access if we take the trouble to inquire to a better understanding of the nature of sexuality and the traps it actually sets for the unweary because the whole thing about attraction, desire, the compulsion to sexuality and the consequences that flow from that is something we experience by trial and error in every generation and it's only by learning - hopefully before we've made fatal mistakes - that we can rise to a higher level and gain ourselves freedom and dignity. That's what the human thing is all about.


06:31 Nick: Sexuality and the compulsion towards romance and mateship and courtship is nothing more than, I guess, a function of life reproducing itself. Is that kind of what you're referring to?


06:40 Paul: At the most fundamental level, absolutely and unequivocally. And let's not consider that that's selling it short. You know, Nick Lane in a recent book called Life Ascending points out that there are two basic kinds of biological cell in the world. The prokaryotic cell which reproduces itself by cloning - bacteria do this - and the eukaryotic cell which reproduces by swapping genetic information and this is the foundation of sex. What we’re doing in sexual relations is swapping genetic material...


07:15 Nick: … eukariotically.


07:17 Paul: … eukariotically. and all animal life and plant life on the planet is essentially eukariotic so the profusion of colour, of display, of song - birdsong, etc., all the repertoire of human courtship and romantic behaviour...


07:34 Nick: All the beauty we see in the world really, isn't it?


07:35 Paul: Absolutely and, you know, Lane put this very well when he said sex makes the difference between a silent and introspective planet full of dour self-replicating things and the explosion of pleasure and glory all around us, alright?


07:48 Nick: That is amazing.


07:49 Paul: That is the biological reality.


07:49 Nick: That is incredible.


07:51 Paul: … and if we fail to understand that, not only do we not understand the natural world and other creatures, we fundamentally fail to understand ourselves.


08:01 Nick: So, if we were dour self-replicating beings, what's the point of it all? This seems like so much of our telos - our purpose in life seems to be partnership and romance and courtship and that kind of maybe sometimes get misconstrued with the, you know, sort of the external manifestations of love and romance and desire, right, rather than I guess the ultimate nuts and bolts of it, if you will, of actual reproduction.


08:34 Paul: Well, notoriously...


08:34 Nick: In a universe in which all we had to do was reproduce which we've acknowledged is the point of sex and attraction and whatever, why do I need all this fanfare?


08:42 Paul: … because otherwise we wouldn't bother. We have to be tricked into it. I mean, I'm perfectly serious. When you look at other living creatures, leaving aside human pretentions and illusions, our living creatures do these things, right?


08:56 … and they do it seasonally and males compete brutally and often, you know, for female favours. There are variations on the theme but one or other gender tends to engage in a great deal of display in terms of colour and physical beauty or dance or song and all sorts of things to attract a mate, alright? This is about reproduction, alright?


09:12 There's a wonderful book by Richard Prum which was published only a couple of years ago called The Evolution of Beauty and his argument is that we have neglected the role of beauty in mate selection and therefore in evolution to our cost, in terms of understanding ourselves and life on the planet.


09:29 … and I think if we do understand this, not only can we take these things more seriously, but we can also gain a certain amount of freedom from our own compulsive behaviours, right? We need to rise above the automatic to generate what's distinctively human which is a free and creative approach to the whole issue of desire, attraction...


09:58 Nick: … impulse.


09:58 Paul: … courtship, impulse exactly. So, not only in moral terms, but in poetic terms. In terms of making something of our lives that's distinctive and free and dignified and this is where the philosophy as well as the morality of sexuality kicks in and ultimately - and in my view at the pinnacle - where poetic creativity enters the picture.


10:27 Nick: That's all fascinating and I will touch on in the interview the nature of human love and what it means to be human and participating in this exchange but, you know, it's remarkable to thing that there are prokaryotic cells in the world which sort of fulfil the same function without all the circuitous and often painful and, you know, difficult...


10:50 Paul: … and very time consuming.


10:51 Nick: Yeah, and process of mating and falling in love or reproducing. So, I don't know, it's almost existential, like why are we eukaryotic and not prokaryotic? It's extraordinary and why is it that the eukaryotic cells seems to have attained a state of sort of primacy on planet Earth?


11:08 Paul: Well, there are two ways to answer that question. The first is that eukaryotic cellular structure and behaviour makes things possible that have never been achieved by prokaryotic cells and from any aesthetic point of view, if you were as it were, a godlike being looking at the planet, the emergence of eukaryotic cells and complex lifeforms is far more interesting than anything that happened before, alright?


11:30 … and if you're a human being and you take an interest in the natural world, you would surely reach the same conclusion.


11:34 On the other hand, from a prokaryotic point of view, all of this is in one sense a departure from the norm because for about two and a half billion years, the whole of life on earth consisted...


11:49 Nick: … prokaryotic.


11:50 Paul: … of prokaryotic cells, alright, and they had the planet to themselves.


11:54 Nick: Dour and grim and efficient.


11:58 Paul: Well, from our point of view but from their point of view, that's life, alright? 


12:03 Nick: … but why life? Yeah, go on. Let's not answer that.


12:06 Paul: Well, you might - of course, without digressing at too great length here, you might still ask as people do, okay so we're human and we have all these impulses and we do all of this stuff but what's the point? What is the meaning of life?


12:15 Nick: So it’s like telos before, what is the meaning essentially?


12:18 Paul: Well, now that's a whole big subject.


12:19 Nick: Another podcast.


12:20 Paul: It's one that philosophers and poets in their own way attempt to answer and at the very least, in the case of poetry, attempt to give a liveable answer here and now to that question.


12:30 … but to cap off an answer to your question about prokaryotic and eukaryotic - as you know at least but your listeners won't - one of my early poems is called Wekaryotes and it makes precisely this distinction and without reciting the whole poem, it opens by saying How would life be? Would it still be erotic had it made you only simply prokaryotic? 


12:55 Nick: This is an interesting point to jump off into the nature of human love rather than biological or material, functional love. What, if anything, distinguishes human love from everything else we see around us in the world, not just prokaryotic exchange but, you know, the love and the courtship rituals of lions for instance or ants or bees or whatever it might be? You know, when we speak about human love, do we mean anything beyond that in a different form?


13:26 Paul: Well, this is where we have to make a couple of distinctions. So, one way to answer your question is to say on the whole there isn't any very great distinction. If you look at the way birds or dolphins or whales or monkeys and others court one another, you can go into the insect world, there are countless variations on the theme. They differ in detail but fundamentally the same thing is happening. That is, on an intraspecies basis, male courts female or vice versa and they reproduce, and another generation grows and that's extraordinary as a phenomenon and then they grow up and they do the same thing all over again and it's been happening for millions and millions and millions of years.


14:01 Our species has been doing it for, well it's now estimated in the case of our particular species perhaps 300,000 years but our stories are almost entirely confined to the last few thousand because it's only then that we've had writing, but I would say this. 


14:19 At one level, generically speaking, there's no difference. We're just like other creatures in our own way but there is a sense in which what's different about human beings is that what's possible for human beings, not what happens automatically....


14:36 Nick: It's something you have to work at, it's not an impulse.


14:38 Paul: It has to be culturally and even personally generated in order to rise above the completely automatic and banal. In any given culture, overwhelmingly people go through the same rituals. Why? Because neither they nor the people around them have terribly much imagination in terms of making it in any way different. This is just what you do.


15:04 Physiologically, there are impulses. Culturally, there are rituals, and generation after generation, that's what they do, and it seems to add a certain amount of meaning to have rituals that go back at least decades, sometimes centuries, sometimes millennia.


15:19 What the poet tries to do is to give it a whole new meaning. What the philosopher tries to do is to understand what's really going on here and what's possible for human beings more generically is to keep rising through those levels of meaning and giving felt meaningful expression then to their personal love.


15:36 Nick: So, before we jumped into this interview, we sort of spoke about Plato's Symposium as the first or I guess the seminal work that tried to distil or unpack or define/understand this idea of human love. So, do you want to sort of speak about that?


15:49 Paul: Well, you know, it certainly wasn't the first attempt of course to do that. Human poets, long before Plato, had been attempting to give expression lyrically and reflectively to their experience of love and the possibilities of love and not just in the Greek world.


16:03 … but what's interesting about Plato's Symposium is that it consists of a dialogue among a number of educated Greeks at the height of the glory of Athens, the 5th century B.C. In fact, in the middle of the Peloponnesian War, the dialogue can be dated to 416 B.C., and several famous historic figures are present. Socrates is there. Aristophanes, who is the great comic playwright, is there. Agathon who is a tragic dramatist is there and he's won the prize at the Dionysian festival for his tragic drama. Alcibiades, the statesman, is there who is a young protégé of Socrates and they've had a kind of erotic involvement which Alcibiades reflects on.


16:48 … but the subject of their drinking party, their symposium, is this question, what is love? And Plato of course wrote it and it's a consummate work of dramatic art because he begins with love or Eros being described in fundamentally biological terms just as we have done. And Aristophanes who is a comic playwright has this hilarious scenario in which he says, you know, originally human beings didn't have four limbs, they had eight because they had two sets of genitalia and they were joined in such a way that they could copulate whenever they wanted, and they rolled around, tumbling around on their eight limbs.


17:29 Nick: Prokaryotically.


17:30 Paul: Well, not so much prokaryotically but certainly erotically, and Aristophanes says but the God's eventually became disgusted because there was this constant sexual congress and so they decided to crack down a little and they bisected all of these eight limbed human beings, the way he says you split an egg in half with a hair.


17:59 And as a consequence, he said human beings have ever since been running around looking for their other half and we feel very happy if we find our original half and we feel a great sense of unity and completeness but it's very hard to find our authentic other half. And it's complicated by the fact that some of us were originally two male bodies or two female bodies, not just one male and one female, and so we're attracted to our own sex.


18:22 This is quite an ingenious piece of writing and it's completely unashamed from the point of view of later puritanical morality and Agathon then speaks and he says in a very highbrow way that Eros is about all the highest ideals and the greatest fulfilments and happiness. And Socrates then says well, you know, that sounds find, but is it really true? And he reflects in a more analytical way on what's really going on, what love really is and perhaps what it's not.


18:50 And he ends up suggesting that there is something that's available here that the others had either failed to noticed or skimmed over and that is that yes, there's the biological and yes, human beings run around and they need to find another half as we even say now but he says there comes a point where you can realise that there is the beauty of another human being to which you're attracted but that rather than just feeling this compulsive attraction to an individuals, you notice that there is beauty in one, there is beauty in another, there is beauty in a third. In short, there is beauty as such and that it's beauty that really draws and that it's incidental in a sense which individual draws you or is idiosyncratic.


19:46 Once you realise that sororates, you can start to reflect that beauty in its own right and the creation and regeneration of the beautiful is what draws you. Well, he says, that can bring you to a whole new level of freedom and dignity as a human being and a commitment to creation and preservation of what is beautiful to treating the other as beautiful rather than simply desirable.


20:10 This makes the dialogue profound and then Alcibiades bursts in and he's drunk, and he's come late, and he hasn't overheard what's been said but he makes clear that, you know, Socrates is a rather strange individual, but he's had personal experience with Socrates. He says, you know take it from me, I tried to seduce Socrates and he wouldn't be seduced. He was trying to instruct me the whole time and I eventually realised that this was authentic, and this was a most unusual human being. I haven't been able to rise to the standards that he sets. I'm much more worldly but I think Socrates is extraordinary.


20:49 Now, that's a bold summary of the symposium but I mention it because of two things. One is that the view of sexuality is very candid. It's not puritanical and yet at the same time, we're being offered the possibility of a transcendence of let's call it animal sexuality. Not because one is condemning sexual desire but because one is seeing through and beyond it to human possibilities.


21:19 Later, in our culture Christianity and on the borderlands of Christianity but coming from the same biblical route, Islam, were much more inclined to be puritanical and condemnatory of sexual desire, much more haunted by it and ill at ease with it than you find in the symposium.


21:32 So, if we a refreshing and free approach to sexuality and love in our time, we could do a lot worse than begin with the symposium.


21:39 Nick: That's a fascinating summary of the philosophical nature of love, Paul, and made more astonishing by the fact that it was written 2400 years ago but supposing you were Alcibiades 2400 years ago, bursting in on the symposium, and you want to sort of outline what love means for you in terms of human possibilities as you references, what would you say? What has it meant for you?


21:59 Paul: Look, I would say that in a sense, every one of us who picks up the symposium now to read it is Alcibiades. We're bursting in on the drinking party which is already taking place and we come in with that kind of ingenuous and worldly question.


22:17 Socrates is offering a rarefied vision here. How do we rise to that standard? What does it mean for us? In my person case, of course I read the symposium a long time ago and I've always regarded it as a classic.


22:37 And to me, when I was younger and first read it, what it indicated was that sexual desire is an impulse that can lead us either to physiological entanglement and/or to a kind of sublimation of that desire, to an appreciation of the beauty of another person and a beauty of such which opens up being human in a whole other way.


23:11 And I wanted that for myself, but I wasn't sure as a young man, of course, how do you do that, and it took a long time. You know, I was a romantic from way back. I mean, I’ll never forget for example more than 30 years ago when I had an encounter with a woman who I went on later to write poems for and it was a case - a classic case - of being smitten. That I was standing in my dorm room at a university and she walked past my open door. I was talking to a male friend and she looked at me and smiled and, I tell you, I was smitten on the spot, just I thought wow and it was beauty that struck me. I didn't know the girl. I got to know her somewhat better later, but I was smitten by beauty and I had to wrestle from that point for several years with that smitten and the question of beauty and the other person and sexuality, and I tell you, it was a painful lesson and I wrote my first half decent poems in wrestling with that.


24:13 And that wasn't the first time I'd fallen in love and it certainly wasn't the last time, but it was an indelible moment and all those questions that were raised in The Symposium were being raised right there.


24:24 Nick: There's a really interesting distinction you've made just now through appreciating the beauty of another being just by virtue of themselves and appreciation of another being is almost like a vessel towards a form or an ideal realm of the beautiful which Plato refers to in The Symposium. Can you kind of - not necessarily with reference to that person in the example you just gave - but comment on that distinction and whether maybe Plato's - I don't know, it doesn't seem right to me in many ways, to think about other human beings as vessels to the beautiful, where we're actually in love with the form of beauty and the human particular is almost incidental.


24:59 Paul: I think there is a danger of that of course and if that is what happens, you can end up with a rather cold idea of beauty. So, we have to hold a certain tension between the transcendent vision and as you rightly say, the particular human being.


25:17 Nick: … which is the physical manifestation of that reality.


25:20 Paul: It's a mortal being with their own concerns and needs and an organic being. We're living beings. We're not abstract entities...


25:30 Nick: Yeah, who lives an individual life as unique as your own.


25:34 Paul: … and it's full of vulnerabilities and uncertainties and so a personal love is a way of the exploration and it's almost an infinite journey and potential into understanding and caring for and appreciating the complexity of another person. And the wonder of it is when that's reciprocated, when you find that the other person is...


25:56 Nick: Totally and completely.


25:56 Paul: … exploring you but if you can do that...


25:59 Nick: … and appreciating you and accepting you.


26:01 Paul: Absolutely and, you know, it's a fraught journey. We know this is not all, as we say, wine and roses but if we are operating at more or less this philosophical level as urged by Socrates, then I would say - and I would say this this as a matter of personal experience - while we love that individual, we can see the nature of love and the attempts we're making at loving in a transcendent context.


26:31 All the religions claim of course to do this in their own ways. The philosophy here is separate from and I would say free from any idea of punishment of hell or heaven, of angels or rituals. It's about real experience and how it can rise to a level of vision and appreciation and awe that otherwise is largely subconscious and strongly driven by biological impulses.


27:00 What we need to be able to do ideally is dance with the two and our most creative endeavours, our greatest achievements in music and poetry, in ballet, in dance, do exactly that.


27:11 Nick: So, I'm fascinated by the poetic, literary, musical, artistic expression of love which to me seems to be like another step on from - I think you articulated this earlier - but from the biological to the human nature of love which we've just touched on in the philosophical nature of love, but then there's this sort of like almost expressive transcendent kind of articulation of that human experience which I think not everyone can access but everyone can relate to. You know, we all love, you know, beautiful love songs or like we started the whole interview with Angie by Rolling Stones, right? So, there's something in that which kind of like distils in its purest form what it means to be human and someone who seeks to love and be beloved on this earth.


27:53 Paul: … and, you know, we asked before about whether there are differences between human beings and other creatures in this regard and I said well, at a very generic level, no. We just do in our own way what they all do in terms of courtship and mate selection and reproduction and the cycle of life, but we are a distinct species.


28:17 Now, two of the things that set us apart are language and music and they are key to our possibilities in the area that we're talking about in terms of love and vision and creativity because language is not as most of the sonic systems - birdsong or whale song - language is not limited in the ways those are to certain kinds of signal or expression.


28:49 Nick: … or expression or whatever, yep.


28:51 Paul: Language is generative of all sorts of subtleties and modes of reference to past, to future, to possibility and through it if we use it - and a poet uses it pre-eminently - we create meaning. We articular our experience. We have it shape than other people who are less perhaps linguistically gifted find that they want to inhabit. As you said, you know, you listen to a song, you know...


29:14 Nick: I suppose feeling these emotions I think are quite similar or...


29:17 Paul: Exactly and the music enhances that, and the musicologists and our theorists of music have been establishing in recent decades in terms of neuroscience and everything else that music seems to be even more deeply rooted in our being than language.


29:31 And one of the most fascinating ways this emerges is that people can have Alzheimer’s or dementia and they can seem far gone. They don't speak anymore. You start playing music and they'll tap their feet. Sometimes they'll even burst into song. You think they can't speak and they'll sing. This is extraordinary. This is music and music is distinctively in that sense human and we're only beginning to, as it were, do an archaeology of how did this come about?


29:54 That’s a profound area and when you see a concert and you see thousands of people responding to an elite musical performance and they're just profoundly physically moved by this - they dance, they chant, they're full of emotion.


30:15 Nick: It's rhythmic, it's primal.


30:17 Paul: Absolutely so and it's worth reflecting on that. You know, we talked about Plato and the sense of beauty. If you go to a concert, you can get carried away with the music. If you're also philosophical, you realise this is a profound experience and you get a kind of binocular vision of this, the immediate experience and the meaning of that experience. And if in addition you are a creative human being, you take it another level again, you contribute to that.


30:43 Nick: Before we move onto poetry and your experience of it, is it not also true that, you know, animals do experience love as well?


30:51 Paul: Yes, there's a continuum in life. You know, if I might put it this way, I briefly refer to my poem Eukaryotes and I asked will I still be erotic if we were prokaryotes instead of eukaryotes? And the answer in the poem is well, no, not really. But from that point where eukaryotic cells start to exchange information, there's this very long slope - we would say upwards slope - to creatures becoming more and more elaborate and experiencing life more and more fully, more and more emotionally.


31:35 And clearly that varies over a broad spectrum of lifeforms, but we know - every person who has paid the slightest attention knows that the animals we associate with - dogs famously, horses - we know in the wild elephants...


31:57 Nick: Whales, pigs, monkeys...


31:58 Paul: Whales, pigs, monkeys, etc., there's a lot of feeling there. There's a lot of sentience, a lot of awareness.


32:01 Nick: Capacity for suffering but also of love.


32:03 Paul: Clearly. I mean, dogs can be enormously affectionate and loyal. Elephants have long memory and we observe animals...


32:07 Nick: … grieving.


32:07 Paul: … in various kinds - grieving, mourning, mating, flirting. You know, monkeys famously and of course, they're very close to us in the evolutionary scheme of things. So, the short answer to your question is absolutely and we've done a disservice to ourselves in the modern world where we've tended to see animals in a Cartesian sense as just unfeeling machines. That's simply not the case.


32:30 Now in the 21st century, some of us at least are edging back in another direction saying animals have rights, you know? They're sentient beings like us and we need to pay attention and give them more love and that industrial farming for example is simple criminal because of the pain and distortion it inflicts on animal lives.


32:47 And you can link that back to our central concern with human love by saying that if we treat another human being - any human being - simply as an object of physical exploitation.


33:01 Nick: Gratification.


33:02 Paul: Gratification, right. We are in a way doing to them what our industrial farmers do to chickens and pigs and so on. We're treating them as an unfeeling, pointless thing and that's the very opposite of love and physical abuse of another person should in no way be confused with love.


33:31 Nick: You said earlier when you were a young man, you felt these great set of impulses or a compulsion to write poetry, to give expression to the sort of rich feelings or this rich interior life that you had with regard to, you know, emotion and love and attraction to other women and so on.


33:46 Paul: Not other women because I'm a male, ha ha. You can leave that in, that will be funny.


33:53 Nick: I'll leave that in as well, but how did you get there? How did you sort of overcome the fact that when you first starting writing poetry or analytical writing about the nature of love - it was difficult and fumbling and maybe not altogether expressive and lucid as it clearly is today - so what was your sort of transformative slope, as it were?


34:15 Paul: Well, the simplest way to put it would be trial and error, you know? And I have to say that a thought that's occurred to me in recent years is if I had in fact succeeded in the ordinary romantic sense in any of my early loves and married in a conventional way and had children, etc., I wouldn't have become a poet. Almost certainly. I wouldn't have had the time. I wouldn't have learned enough. I wouldn't have had the leisure to practice. I wouldn't have had the, you know, varied experience that I've had with different woman, different loves, different kinds of failure and above all, I wouldn't have met the woman who finally has become my muse and who more than any other has inspired me to write good poetry and with whom I have a very authentic loving relationship.


35:16 It's in many ways deeply satisfying to be able to look back on that and see how much I've learned, often very painfully let it be said, but I do remember saying to a younger male friend about 20 years ago when he had lost a girlfriend who had left him, and he was desolate as one tends to be. I said my advice is exploit this for all it's worth by listening to the best soulful music and song which has been composed by people giving expression to what you're going through. Find the better poetry and take it to heart because you're discovering how real it is.


35:39 Nick: You can mine it and excavate it.


35:40 Paul: Absolutely, you can, and you build your own interior world. And I did do that and, you know, one early step along the way was almost fortuitous. I was staying at a university college 35 years ago and the English tutor in the college decided to run a sonnet competition and the girl I was seeing at the time said, "Are you going to write a sonnet?"


36:08 My initial response was no, I don't write poetry. You know, I'm a political scientist and historian and she said, "You're very good with words. I think you should have a go."


36:21 Nick: Amazing.


36:23 Paul: And I did. I wrote a sonnet and how did I get to write a sonnet? Well, first of all, one is supposed to write a sonnet. That was the competition but secondly, to teach myself I read Shakespeare’s sonnets. There's 154 of them. I read the lot.


36:39 By the time I had read all these sonnets I thought well I get the hang on this, this is what a sonnet is. Then I simply had a crack at writing one and it turned out to be a good one. From that point, over the years when I fell in love which I did many times, I would write sonnets.


36:51 It took me a long time before I became free enough emotionally and in terms of self-confidence to have a crack at other kinds of poems and it didn't really happen until I met my current partner and muse and she really lit up the landscape for me. So, I've written better and much more varied poetry with a whole variety of rhyme and metrical forms and themes and moods for her than for anyone else.


37:16 Nick: If you had to pick one to read now, what would you choose and let's have a read of it, I think.


37:22 Paul: Well, to kick it off with, I...


37:23 Nick: Here's one you prepared earlier.


37:25 Paul: Yes. Yeah, well we talked about biology as the foundation and about evolution and beauty and so on and there is a poem that I wrote a few years ago called Fire in the Wheel which is about exactly that. The central conceit of it is a poem is that the same couple - let it be said in this time of all sorts of gender variations that it's about a heterosexual couple, not a gay couple. I'm heterosexual, you know. People with different experiences and identities will write poetry about that. I'm uncomplicated in being heterosexual. This about a male and female who live through the whole human evolution over millions of years and it's addressed by the male partner to his beloved partner, looking over the many many millennial, the millions of years in which they have been reincarnated as it were again and again.


38:23 And so, it brings together the biological theme that I mentioned with this specifically human and then being upon, it instantiates a third, so it gives you the whole pyramid.


38:34 Nick: A very nice end way to sum up.


38:35 Paul: It reads as follows. I've loved you from the beginning with the simplest of gestures, with inarticulate cries, with unselfconscious mimicry. I've loved you since the first fire wielding when we yelled together at encircling beasts, feasted on fire roasted insects and nuts, huddled around the flames in awe. 


38:56 Was that Eden, that long-ago eon? As the hand formed, and the inner eye, the larynx and broker's brain, before ever we sang to one another. Or was Eden a time of hand-axes, as all this came together in our hearts and hunting, from old Andalucía to the Chinese rivers? 


39:13 What years those were of wide exploring. Eurasia was ours with new spheres, exulting in our uncanny craft, we wondered at what we were. Our long days fell like forest leaves. They endured like evergreens. Our fire circles lit the long nights, changing our dreams. 


39:32 Were those shimmering years, those many hundred millennia before our love made music, truly our golden age? Did you feel loved then, as the wide seas rose and fell, as the ice advanced and retreated, as the giant forests shifted again and again? Or was it only later that sentiment came and crooning, coaxed by oxytocin out of the flicker of long light under the waxing moon? Was I a caricature to your mind of all that was possible? Possible for a singing hominid under the sun. Was I stone in need of shaping? 


40:07 Ah, we buried each other many times, again and again with grief and ochre, over ages under the ageless stars, from [unclear] to [unclear]. Remember the times sheltered from the harsh climate shift in the north when we relished our little piece of Africa in Andalucía, those idyllic coasts and caves. 


40:27 But your love transformed me. Your call for songs and stories. You’re playing to me on bone flutes. Your vivid art of changing forms. We shook the shackles of the ancient trees, hailed the sky-god with high hands. We took to the open horizon, pitched bold camp on the stark step. 


40:46 There at last, you carved me into shape. Your love cut antler into a figurine and I, deer hunter, roamed forth graviton, making long lasting legends on the plains. You wove me a coat of wool, dyed in wondrous new colours, finer than any cured skin and I revelled in your homespun beauty. Even that was a long age of ardour under the high wheeling stars, rich with rumour of far mountains, with mammoth hunts and possibilities. 


41:15 Then the revolution came at last. The wheel. The mastering and mustery of horses, the making of wanes and war chariots, the being of bright, burnished bronze. Ah, sky-gods, the wheel and the horse brought an end to our long cycles. Ah, my lover with golden hair, the wheel set us rolling, riding, racing in the chariot of the sun, did it not? 


41:36 Since then, everything has gone in a flash. A riotous blur of songs and innovations, a nightmare of blood and terror. I've loved you from the beginning. Let's not now go under the wheel. All our myths are confused. I long only for your beauty.


41:57 Nick: That's a really, really stunning poem and I think - you know, not that I've read it recently - but it seems to me to be remarkable because it encapsulates the expansive feeling of love in the way that you've sort of straddled it or extended it, kneaded it, across space and time and matched it to the entire history of human evolution and development on the planet through the story of one love which is reincarnated and almost eternal and infinite which I think at its deepest expression, all love should be thought of in a metaphysical, eternal sense which transcends the brief time you have together on earth.


42:58 Paul: The immediate, and the banal.


42:59 Nick: The immediate, exactly. Well, not necessarily the banal, but the immediate and the confined, necessarily mortal nature of love. One thing that struck me as I was listening to that was the fact that, you know, the idea of being ground under the wheel - the wheel of life - was the fact that how many, you know, billions of stories - individual human stories and individual human loves - have there been on this planet since homo-sapiens or this animal - this human animal - sort of evolved consciousness and the ability to think in this manner. You know, and they’re all essentially ground into the dirt and then just sort of lost for all time. It's striking. If you think about it. One likes to think that one’s love transcends and it immortal and is eternal.


43:29 Paul: Well it's a conceit of course because it isn't but in cultural forms, whether a poem or a treatise like The Symposium or a great song, things can endure and be passed on long after the author is gone. You know, we could read a poem - for example, Shakespeare famously wrote a poem saying that his poem would immortalise the life of his beloved. We read the poem and we get his sentiment, but we haven't any idea who the beloved was.


44:03 Nick: No, exactly. But I suppose for Shakespeare in writing in, in any writing, perhaps it feels - perhaps it is a conceit, like a literary conceit, but you know, I do still feel as though for the author, when you set down and you express in writing - maybe in music or in art - that feeling and that relationship that you have with that particular person who hopefully if it was love, felt the same way about you, authentically. You know, one likes to think that it will endure in some way.


44:45 Paul: Well, think of it - here's another way to think about it. If we make up a melody in enthusiasm and if we're able to do that but we don't have any means to record it - we don't have notation, we don't have a recording device - it can disappear. We might even personally forget it. We whistle it to ourselves on a morning walk and then we can't set it down and we can't remember it after a little while, and we certainly can't share it readily with others. But if we had notation, we can write down the rudiments of it. Somebody else can then take that notation and say, "That's not bad but if you did this and this, you could enhance it," and then you get a musical ensemble and they start to perform it. And they said, "What if we added this instrument and that variation and this?" and it just becomes something bigger, right?


45:33 Nick: But in your example with Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty, it was almost metaphysical in a sense that the story behind your writing of that was you might explain yourself but your love that inspired that particular set of poems said that whatever comes with this, at least this will be like a lasting testament to our love. It doesn't matter if - no one reads this stuff. It was there, and you set it down in writing and it's almost enough for you...


46:00 Paul: Yes, that's of course - within literary human cultures, that's an ancient aspiration, you might say, or conceit. Specifically, what happened, and I did share this story with you was that - I must have written about 40 sonnets for this particular young woman a long time ago now and I was madly in love with her and she loved the poems. She loved the fact that I wrote them for her. She said to me things like, "Other men have written poems for me but never like these."


46:25 And then one particular night, she held up one of them on the piece of paper I'd written it on and waved it in the air and she said, "You must get these published then in years to come, whatever happens between you and me, I'll be able to hold up your book and say I inspired this."


46:38 That's a lovely thing to share and I did get them published eventually. Not the 40 but 12 of the best arranged in a sequence and illustrated and with commentary and it makes a lovely book.


46:54 We had long since gone our separate ways by the time that happened and I've no idea - I've lost track of her completely - I've no idea whether she ever got hold of the book but it's there. It does exist and for me at least, quite apart from whether she ever gets to hold it up and say that it inspired her - and I hope she does so, I hope that it consoles her, whatever the condition of her life now is - but for me it made something beautiful out of an ephemeral love affair that fell apart and left me heartbroken.


47:33 Nick: Yeah, so what do you say to those people who kind of are cynical and sceptical and say we don't really need love and it's all...


47:41 Paul: I would lay good money that they are being disingenuous but it's a defiant way - like in the old Simon and Garfunkel songs saying, you know, I'm a rock, I'm an island, I don't need love. They're fooling themselves. Either they actually do want it and they're defiantly pretending they don't or they're so shut down emotionally that they don't realise what they're missing and then one feels a little sad for them.


47:58 I would rather have the pain of unfulfilled passion or loss than not love and I've tried to express that in my poetry. If I may, if we have time, I'd like to add a second poem. This is one that I also wrote in recent years. It's called Dance me on down from Toledo and it attempts to capture this idea that once you've formed an intimate partnership and just to the extent that there really is love and it is working, it becomes a kind of dance.


48:28 Dance requires cooperation, you know? Even in most classical forms of dance, a man may lead but if a woman is not there with him and not moving with him, it doesn't work. So, it is with love.


48:46 So - pardon me - this one goes: “Come and dance with me down from Toledo by the light on the bridge we have made, to a land with a non-Christian credo, where flamencos and tangos are played. Dance me speechless to high snow-capped mountains from which orchards and pastures are fed, and the cypresses, arches and fountains of Alhambra, the Isle of the Dead. There the rich Andalusian musers sing softly to all who can hear, though a pallid blue past still confuses the mind and the heart and the ear, for vengeful and dark Catholic violence five centuries since overthrew and condemned to the grave or to silence the voice of the Moor and the Jew. 


49:31 But dance with me down from Toledo by the light on the bridge we have made, to a land with a non-Christian credo, where flamencos and tangos are played. Though golden Al-Andalus perished, suppressed by the cepted and crossed, the ballads and songs gypsies cherished plucked song lines from ruinous loss.


49:47 The spirit of Arabi lingers in the genius of Spanish guitar, in flamencos for feet and for fingers, in [unclear] and in [unclear]. Those flamencos and song lines in flower, the soul of Granada reborn so offended the fascists in power that they murdered poor [unclear] at dawn.


50:04 Still dance with me down from Toledo by the light on the bridge we have made, to a land with a non-Christian credo, where flamencos and tangos are played. From there, let's dance on out of reason with our hearts full of [unclear]’s deep song and to beauty has come into season and we know that that's where we belong.


50:23 While we dance, let's sustain that illusion with whatever good faith we can find. May our steps take us wide of confusion. May our love keep us blissfully blind. For to sing and to dance in our yearning, to share our deep song face to face, to glide into each twist and turning is to live with both freedom and grace.


50:49 And so dance me on down from Toledo by the light on the bridge we have made, to a land with a non-Christian credo, where flamencos and tangos are played. 


51:01 Nick: Stunning. 


51:04 I would think that there is another note which we might perhaps finish on that is to do with communicating and just intimacy. So, that last poem was about in a sense the movement of life, dealing with the twists and turns and challenges of life. But there's a very important sense in human love though not as we hinted earlier, altogether absent in the lives - emotional lives - of other animals with the dogs or whales, etc.


51:30 But that is that you want to be understood by the other person and you want to think that they want to be understood by you. There is very subtle elements to that and I've written a short poem which is actually a variation on a poem by Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, and it's called So that you will hear me.


51:48 It goes like this: “So that you will hear me my words like lithe chameleons are changing shape and tone. Before you touched them, my words will murmured darkness and cold stone, but you soothed my psyche, persistently making murmurings light, lamps over the muttered. Now I want my words to say what I want to say to you so that I will hear you say that you want to hear me say them. I want my words to form a necklace of pearls for your hidden self, for your heart's throat.”


52:17 Nick: Stunning. Well, thank you very much for your time, Paul. As always, it's been a great pleasure.