Sunday, February 11, 2018

Interview: Author Richard Cawdron Writes Poetry About Life, Love and History

Richard Cawdron of England grew up as a musician and has turned his talents to a related endeavor  - writing poetry - which he considers to be "word music." In this interview Richard shares his observations on poetry and the life that guides his pen.

What drives you as a writer? 

“It is about being fired up by a subject and the urges and feelings from creating, conveying and being heard."

Richard Cawdron: Firstly, subjects for writing occur to me spontaneously.  The ‘grab’ me: situations, encounters, memories, an everyday observation, news, dilemmas, paradoxes, culture, great unknowns that intrigue me -- there will always be the immediate germ of a discussion, a tension, something for me to learn.

Self-teaching is a driver to write commented on by Sir Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate.

Secondly, to me poetry is a performing art, and offers the same satisfactions as music...

Both verse and music are abstract: music because it is not literal, other than singing; poetry because it is literal, or usually purports to be, although far from unmusical, and often the music in it means more than the letter.

Music organises sonorities into an engaging, sustained sequence for the ear and the mind: moving our body to the core, a work-out for the soul, free of any language but its own.

Poetry does much of the same.  It is less regulated in rhythm, pitch, key, clearly, than the medium of music is, but still as concerned with structure and sonorities for its effect – prosody - as by mere word meanings, grammar and syntax that carries it along.

I call poetry ‘word music’, or “words without song”(in reference to the composer Mendlessohn’s ‘Songs Without Words’), where even some verse’s non-syntactic, unacquainted words of barely sense, allusion, distant subjects and foreign tongues, figuration and even pauses, hesitations, silent (‘rests’, in music) or ‘filled’ (caesuras), articulate the traits for language to communicate with the same abstract sense to the ear and mind as music.  Even the roars, cackle and chirruping of other animals are language to them and music to us!

And for the author, as for composer or performer, the poem is a discovery: an exposition of the subject, a study or development of the subject at hand, with the aim to evoke a concluding point or proposition, what musicians call a ‘cadence’ or falling into place that ends a ‘sonata’.

The writer, a person reciting, the audience and private readers are all participants in a poem’s outreach. For its writer, a poem satisfies enquiry, a need to put over its journey through statement, exploration, and the goal, an answer, complete or tentative; a sublime communication, just as when listening to your favourite violinist, singer or silently reading or going over music in your head.”

Richard Cawdron
Why did you choose poetry?

Richard Cawdron:  I grew up a musician, mostly singing, and usually in an ensemble or in church choirs, including Kings College Choir, Cambridge. 

So I have an ear for sonorities, melodic sequences, polyphony, discordance and assonance.  Poetry, as I said, seems close to music at heart, and in the same way answers a need to explore and convey...

My curiosity to find answers has urgency and working on or conveying a subject slowly is frustrating.  With due apologies to Charles  Dickens and Henry James, in writing or reading prose I struggle with the lengthiness of sentence, paragraph and  chapter, and the often turgid all-knowingness of the author in characterisations (so unlike real encounters); except for reference books such as history, which provide a helpful index for the speed -  and ‘skip-around’ reader that I am.  The succinctness possible in poetry and the armoury of expression available are more immediate and to me easier to discourse through.

How long does it take you to write a poem?

Richard Cawdron: Composing a poem tends to be fast-paced: I note the key ideas and the extent of a subject, then write the first phrases that suggest themselves, even a stanza, around certain ideas, sequence the ideas, then develop and execute the metric and rhyme scheme as applicable.  Bursts of two to three hours of frenetic writing lead to a sense of exhaustion and blockage, when ideas ‘seeded’ in progress are best left to germinate, and some time later, perhaps many months later, they can emerge as new green shoots.

Did you study writing/literature in school?

Richard Cawdron: School served up a typical selective diet of Virgil, Caesar, Cicero, Ovid, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Dickens, Forster, Hardy, Lawrence, Wilde, Shaw, Priestley, Orwell, Hemingway, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, as well as a solid helping of classics and modern prose and poetry in German and French if you studied those languages.  English language poets came from both sides of the Atlantic, and there was a large dose of World War One and pre- and 20th century greats, including Lewis, Tolkien, Owen and Sassoon, Auden, Pound, Blunden, Heaney.

Every year would see a ‘declamation’ competition in which each pupil would learn and perform a poem or other reading, by heart, in front of the whole school, in an extended competition. This was intended as a feet of memory, characterisation and self-confidence in public.  It was also a compulsory introduction to the canon of English literary party pieces, since 600 pupils would each make a unique selection.

I recall learning whole tracts of Virgil by heart and memorising the cribs and critiques line by line for these, by wrote, almost oblivious to understanding, and for the set texts in English and foreign languages.  By these doubtful means (despite being a ten-year dunce in Latin) I achieved high grades  – such a surprise to my teachers that they volunteered my Latin paper for remarking...  There was no mistake!

This tutored, classroom dissection and deconstruction in minutiae of set texts proved invaluable, although painful at the time, because it gradually instilled insights into the techniques of composition, structure, formation and employment of figures of speech, rhythmic and metric variety, subtler use of rhyme by pararhyme, assonance, consonance, dissonance, pace and pauses.

It informed my appreciation of music as well.  The two mediums engage very similar devices; their employment is best inadvertent, as a compositional-memory, instinct or colour palette that works innately in the act of composition.

But what was set in place by teaching has taken me nearly fifty years apparently to understand and absorb enough to start applying. Writing with any facility, as with music-making, is a late development!

Who inspired you to write poetry?  Was it someone you knew personally, or a favorite poet? 

Richard Cawdron: At school we had had one of those all-time great, hall-of-fame headmasters, Dennis Silk, who had worked and studied under Sassoon and Blunden.  It was his teaching that imparted the appreciation of figures of speech in English and their employment to good effect.

A good writer delivers figurative language for the same effect as a bowler in cricket bowls around his opponent”, he said... and he was a successful cricket international to back up his story.

Naturally his focus on the poets of his direct formative acquaintance rubbed off, their styles, perspectives, moods of composition, delicious cadences of language, alliterative verse, rhyme schemes, all are an important influence.

What do you do for a living, or how does it relate to or not relate to poetry writing?

Richard Cawdron: I advise early-stage companies on capital raising and related transactions, mainly property and infrastructure developments.  Previously a British Army officer, physical commodity dealer and investment manager, I have kept up a number of interests, including music, historical research and translation.  These feature in my writing and hopefully will become a latter-life career.

Why do you choose the topics you do? 

Richard Cawdron-White: Again, my subjects occur eclectically, on the spur of the moment.  There must be that challenge, the spur of enquiry, but they have so far fallen into five groups.

First there is the standard poetic fare of ‘Moods and Meanings’, which is mainly a reminiscence of personal feelings and observations about the everyday stuff of Life and Love, written so as to include you in the scene by teasing out likely shared reminiscences.


Barely a murmur in the wood;
The oaks shift quietly in their sleep,
Moonlight embracing every bough,
Caressing the cover at their feet.

Hardly a shadow trips that glade,
All its creatures, alert, keep from sight
As the silent spirits steal abroad
And thrill all senses with the longing of night.

A breath!  The wind sighs,
Rustling the leaves,
Wakens not the ash, nor oak,
Nor intrudes
In the slumbering lovers' dreams,
But they stir together,
Hold more close,
Unspoken whispers in their ears.

Second comes ‘Places and People’, in which I explore locations and personalities that have been important to me, but striving for the shared imagination and experience with my reader and audience.

Then comes ‘Arts and Performance’, where I deal with paintings, films, music, dance, cinema that are relatively well known, but I attempt to treat these subjects poetry as shared journeys, as a performance through  a period of time, not merely as descriptions, and examine the interaction between the person, the work and its creator.

After comes ‘Militaria’ – my experiences of military historical research and army life, partly coloured by my schooling in the English war-poet masters, themselves adept at the everyman perspective on conflict.

Finally there is ‘Edgy and Attitude’.  In this genre I am at my most experimental and varied in approach.  Subjects may be relatively obscure (which is why notes become copious), but that as I said should not impair their enjoyment or subliminal understanding.  Here I deal with social and political comment, faith, and the juxtaposition of faiths, science and layity, some more obscure subjects to some, but topical enough to speak to everybody.

In all categories, I try to write what readers can identify with in their own likely experience, and not just in poems of love and sentiment.  They may not have thought about it, in some subjects, but I would like them to say, “yes, that rings a bell”.

Also, my style and structure of writing varies.

Figuration is important: not just alliteration, simile, metaphor, but chiasmus, oxymoron (such as “loud silence”), anthropomorphic (...“the trees listen”) for effect; the puzzling sometimes expresses the most...

A common element is to underplay end-rhyme, in favour of tapping the English language for its assonant, consonant and dissonant sonorities, and the rhythms, constructions and delivery of speech, and to emulate musical polyphony in the succession of stanzas and counterpoint of themes within.

This recalls not only earlier 20th century writing, but older, often alliterative and anisosyllabic traditions of verse, of Shakespeare, and the epic oral genres of the post-Roman era, from multiple cultures too and languages, as well as the meanderings of rhetoric and live discourse.

Language and syntax is a slender part of speech and comprehension; the rest (tone, gesture, bearing, pitch, speed, gaps, rhetoric – ie, prosody) is the real stuff of understanding, to the extent that literal content matters little except to lawyers and those who claim the right to rule us.  Poets on the other hand are in the business of inclusivity, or should be!

What is the message or feeling you want to convey with your writings?

Richard Cawdron:  I cover many topics, probably more than is typical, and am consciously trying to navigate with poetry in uncharted territory, one might say. But, to generalise, I want to write primarily restful, positive, reassuring poetry, at least in its outcomes, even if certain subjects are challenging.

The language should not cloy, be dull, clumsy or obscure, but flow off the tongue melodically, its hearing conjuring understanding and enjoyment in the senses.

I want the poetry, more than its literal content, to speak for itself, irrespective of language, familiarity of subject, or remoteness of argument.  Nonsense poems are perhaps the purest example where literal meaning has no bearing on the writing’s sense or conviction.

If the subject involves controversy then the conclusion can be suggested, hanging or implicit, never imposed, and indeed allusiveness throughout can be more eloquent than blunt propositions or too literal description.

Who are your favorite writers? Do you care for film?

Richard Cawdron: School gave me some insights into poetry, but I only started to read and write widely in the recent few years.

I am not well-read in novels beyond what school instilled, and have preferred short stories over time: Priestley, Maugham, Hardy, Lawrence, for their concentrated delivery and character development.

History appeals much more, especially newer historical work that brings fresh interpretation, based for example on personal reminiscence and correspondence of contemporaries.  Too much history was written about the doings of great men, usually political leaders, as steersmen, and not enough about the crew, the ships of state, and the elements and oceans that carried them along!

What compels me about, and is seldom written, is the levers of apparently inexplicable change: how did the deeply Catholic, mediaeval King Henry VIII think to break with Rome; or a less than auspicious junior, low-born general, Napoleon, stage a virtually single-handed coup d’état imposing a right-wing dictatorship on the revolutionary republic that was France?

Dumas Malone’s six volume biography of Thomas Jefferson is comprehensive and gives wonderful insights into the philosophical framework, personal and financial motives for Independence, the land issue  West of the 1763 Proclamation Line, nation building, the problems of a credit-based economy absent an adequate money supply.  This all shifts interpretation away from a purely ‘patriotic’ and idealised cause of liberty to the articulation by political means of the interests of a narrow group led by the Founding Fathers.

Military History in that bottom-up vein is compelling to a former soldier who is inclined to historical research:

Lyn MacDonald’s series on First World War campaigns:  The Somme, III Ypres, Amiens.

Peter Hofschröer’s trilogy on Napoleon’s 100 Days Campaign in 1815.

Mark Urban: The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes.  We know the story of Bletchley and the decryption of German coded traffic during the Second World War.  General George Scovell achieved similar advance intelligence from intercepting and breaking Napoleon’s secret Grand Chiffre traffic of the Peninsular War and Waterloo Campaign.

It fascinates me how non-military historians (and even those ex-military, usually generals) account for battles strategically, as arrays of squares and arrows on a two-dimensional map, with narratives about plans, logistics, command and control, morale – very much the material of generalship.  Walk the terrain yourself and the tactical features of topography provide and equal or more prominent account: what could each side see and react to?  My ‘Militaria’ address the grass-roots experience of the fighting man.

I’m broadening my poetry reading by researching technique and working backwards into multiple authors and languages.  Long overdue, it is encouraging to find many styles and methods that recur in my writing, almost inadvertently, particularly assonance, consonance and alliterative verse.  Sometimes I quote from a theme, a phrase, or a metrical scheme I find written elsewhere.  Sometimes I will rework or quote an earlier work to develop it differently myself.

I notice how few poets have written on some subjects that I tackle, particularly the critiques, the satire, controversy, philosophy, science, civilisation, other creative arts, the use of argument to drive a poetic structure and essay the subject to a conclusion.  More usual subjects, people, places, love and emotion I also think get a new treatment from me, with a degree of personal content that is seldom written about and which readers will recognise, I hope, from their own experience.

In film, again I have a traditional and reflective appetite, and prefer heroic dramas or those from literary classics that deal with relationships facing challenge, such as by illness, history, social attitudes.  Recently I have been taken with Anna Karenina, various Austen, Hardy and Forster adaptations, as well as The Painted Veil, set against the background of an epidemic in China, and Breathe, the account of a young polio victim’s struggle inspired by his wife to rehabilitate and remain alive in the 60’s till his son grows up.”
What can we expect from you in the future? Any new projects? Where can we see you work?

Richard Cawdron:  My first collection, the result of work since 2014, is about to be published.  With over 150 titles, it will contain a number of illustrations and quite comprehensive notes on subjects that are less familiar, in order to ensure the greatest number of titles are accessible.  The structure of the book is based on my five core themes, and later publications will develop each of them more fully, as well as following particular periods and adventures.

In addition I have written the stage play, script and lyrics for a musical, “Overture”, on the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the freed slave who led the Slave Revolution in the former French colony of Saint Domingue during the French Revolution, defeating the military adventures of America, Britain and France, and resulting in founding Haiti as the first independent black nation, as well as the Louisiana Purchase, bringing the former French territories of North America into the USA – the lands between the Mississippi and the Continental Divide.  It should be ‘Les Miserables’, with fine uniforms, intrigue, voodoo, Afro-Caribbean melody, rhythm and sonorities, and even more ‘street-cred’!

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