Douglas Dunn downs a double espresso in one long gulp, but declines a refill: “That’s my fourth coffee today. Any more and you’ll be scraping me off the ceiling.” Straight away, he has done a thing poets do: he has created an image in the mind’s eye. For a moment, I find myself considering what this dapper 75-year-old with his walking stick might look like airborne. We’re in Luvians in St Andrews, an old-school cafe selling ice cream and chocolate where no one uses the word “artisan” – as good a place as any to discuss poetry. And in the last 25 years, St Andrews has become synonymous with poetry: for having eminent poets on the university teaching staff; for having a building (part of the School of English) renamed Poetry House; for being home to Scotland’s poetry festival, StAnza, which will play host to some 90 poets from all over the world from 7-11 March this year.
If you were to trace all these things back to their origins, you might find that many of the roads lead to Dunn, who retired as Professor in the School of English in 2008 and continues as a patron of StAnza. But he is as unassuming about this as he is about his own achievements as a poet: most recently a Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, and a shortlisting for the prestigious TS Eliot Prize for his 2017 collection, The Noise of a Fly.
A neat figure with a manicured white beard, his walking stick hooked over his folded arm, he speaks so quietly I have to lean in to hear. Choosing his words with care, he often concludes an answer with a sardonic parting shot, but rarely with much conviction. He once said: “I do a good impersonation of a curmudgeon. But it is an impersonation. We all have our little pranks…”
The Noise of a Fly is not a curmudgeonly work. Quite the opposite. It is undeniably a book written in later life, touching on ageing, dementia and mortality, but is shot through with lightness, sometimes taking the form of humour, sometimes a clear-sighted irony, often a delighted wonder at the world. It begins with a near-perfect four-line poem about writer’s block.
“Or writer’s laziness or whatever you want to call it,” Dunn chuckles. “Writer’s disinclination might be nearer the truth.” It’s his first book for 17 years. The poems, he says, don’t come along as frequently now. “I belong to what a friend of mine (the writer and critic Ian Hamilton) used to call the miraculous school of poetry. Philip Larkin used to say – and he was pretty parsimonious with his gift: ‘You can’t write a poem unless you have a poem to write’.”
Our conversation comes back several times to Larkin, whom Dunn met when he went to Hull University in the 1960s. Born in Inchinnan, he had studied librarianship at college and went to work in America, returning in 1966 after receiving his call-up papers for the Vietnam war. Studying at Hull, he took on some work in the Brynmor Jones Library, where Larkin was chief librarian.
While it’s possible to spot Larkin’s influence in Dunn’s work, he says they talked more about jazz than about poetry. “He wasn’t someone you could engage in a deep conversation about poetry, more’s the pity,” he says. Larkin, too, could do a very good impersonation of a curmudgeon. “Yes, oh, he could be curmudgeonly. He could also be hilariously funny. He was also a very good professional librarian, a very good manager. His staff adored him, women especially, despite the fact that there were [posthumous] accusations of misogyny. Actually, I think a better word would be ‘misanthropy’ because he didn’t like men either. He was very distrustful of the entire human race!”
In 1969, the year Dunn graduated from Hull, his first poetry collection, Terry Street, was published and hailed as groundbreaking for the way it described the lives of the working-class community in which he had lived. Speaking recently on Radio 3, he said he wondered, in retrospect, if the poems had been “intrusive”, saying: “The true poems about Terry Street should have been written by someone who grew up there.” But the critic Terry Eagleton, writing in 1970, praised him for managing to “transcend the two major pitfalls of poetry concerned with working people –bourgeois voyeurism or sympathetic mythification”.
His work has always had a concern, an ear, for those with no poetic voice of their own, most overtly in his 1979 book, Barbarians, in which he expressed in poetry the anger of a class excluded from it. (“By that time Larkin was quite deaf, and when he finally heard the title, he said, ‘Oh, thank God, for a horrible minute there I thought you said Librarians!’”) “The political thing is there, definitely,” Dunn says. “Less in this new book, but in other poems, other books. One reviewer once described me as a notorious Marxist.”
Dunn published several more collections which were well received, but it was Elegies, written in the aftermath of his wife’s death from cancer at the age of 37, which brought him to a wider readership. The book, in which his clarity of insight and language is applied to love and loss with heartbreaking poignancy, won the Whitbread Award in 1985. Further acclaimed books of poems such as St Kilda’s Parliament and Dante’s Drumkit followed, and two superb collections of short stories. Dunn remarried, moved back to Scotland, and was appointed Professor at St Andrews in 1991.
For the writing of poetry, his rules are deceptively simple. “I do like to try and keep similes at bay,” he says. “‘Tell it slant,’ as Robert Frost used to say, or was that Elizabeth Bishop?” (We decide, eventually, that it was Emily Dickinson.) “You pictorialise things, you know. Also, I’m a great believer in trying to get as many of the five senses into the poem as possible. And I like to use meter. And rhyme. I used to play the clarinet. I was very far from being God’s gift to music: I had quite a nice tone, good technique, I was just lacking in one thing which was talent. I’ve given up playing, but there’s enough residual musicality left for me to have a musical sense of language, I hope. It’s certainly something I think of when I write.
“My belief is that a poem is very often about itself. It might pretend to be about something else but I think the best poems are written by poets who don’t write ‘aboutly’. If you want to write ‘about’ something, then write it in prose for God’s sake!”
He worked particularly hard, he says, on a poem called ‘Fragility’, to be engraved on the window of a new health centre in Renfrew. It’s a kind of delicate epiphany which begins with an evening walk in the garden and ends with a serene acceptance of whatever time will bring. “I did work very hard on that poem because it was to be engraved on glass, that makes it permanent, you know. Although you can throw a brick through it, I suppose,” he chuckles again. “But I don’t think there are
all that many literary critics in Renfrew.” n
StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, runs from 7-11 March in various venues around St Andrews.For more information see www.stanzapoetry.org. An Audience with Douglas Dunn is at the Albany Hotel, North Street, St Andrews, 9 March, 3:45pm