Susan Utting Susan Utting 


Interview for The Poetry Paper 2007, Aldeburgh Poetry Festival's annual publication

We would like you to tell us about your three FAVOURITE POETS:
a) your favourite 'old' poet (pre-20th century)
b) your favourite 20th century poet (deceased)
c) your favourite contemporary poet (alive and kicking!)

Favourite “old” Poet:
At school, I fell deeply in love with Sir Philip Sidney (his ardour, his simple “look in thy heart and write”). Then it was John Donne (his clever sexiness, his wicked, beguiling ways with words and ideas). But it was Milton I grew to love the most, and still go back to most often. Paradise Lost was a challenge: I felt daunted by its length, marginalised by its subject matter, and intimidated by its language. Until at someone’s suggestion I tried reading it aloud. A revelation! The power of the words, their sounds, the rhythm and cadence of Milton’s verse, its musicality carried me through this rattling good story. I discovered rich, visual descriptions, psychologically fascinating characters (I’m talking mainly Satan here). Books I and IV are among favourites where Satan really does have all the best lines!

Favourite 20th Centuary Poet:
The notion of “what lasts” is taking me to big names, big characters like Whitman or Carl Sandburg. These I do re-read frequently, for inspiration and uplift. But my immediate and most honest choice is Bertolt Brecht. Of course, I came to Brecht through theatre, loving his direct, polemical, challenging yet entertaining plays, his original ways of turning the epic into the personally relevant (am I back to Paradise Lost here?). What I love about Brecht’s poetry is its simplicity, its directness, its clear voice, its conviction. And its range: he can be lyrical, can tell a good tale, can be bossy and instructional. He can be angry; or delighted by the smallest detail of a moment, an observed object, a place. But always, despite Brecht’s avowed aim to elicit rational responses, it is the emotional impact of reading Brecht’s poems that draws me back time and again. Poems 1913-1956 would be my Desert Island Bible.

Favourite Alive & Kicking Poet:
This is difficult, but I’m going to choose Lavinia Greenlaw as someone whose poems never disappoint, no matter how often I go back to them, however familiar they become. There is a careful use of language, a coolness even, about the way she describes the everyday, or the exotic, that makes it look easy or inevitable to use that word, that image in exactly that way. Again, there are stories - my first encounter was The Innocence of Radium - and frequently a fascination with science. But Greenlaw’s poems infuse facts with emotion: the exact feel and mood of a time, a situation or a place, from the Arctic to Essex, creep up on you through stunningly original imagery and perfect control of form. Greenlaw loves elemental extremes of light, dark, cold and heat; she can take emptiness, silence, isolation, even boredom and paint them into bright subjects of wonder.

And finally, in no more than 20 words, where do your poems come from?
From an itch at the solar-plexus; a corner of my mind’s eye; or in through my ear like insistent music.

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