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John Fuller: A Revolutionary Poet? An Interview with the Author of The Bone Flowers (2016)

John Fuller: poète révolutionnaire? Entretien avec l’auteur de The Bone Flowers (2016)
Aurélien Saby


Cet entretien avec le poète contemporain John Fuller interroge la notion de révolution—au sens le plus large du terme—à la fois dans son œuvre et plus particulièrement dans son dernier ouvrage, le long poème narratif intitulé The Bone Flowers paru en 2016. Dans quelle mesure Fuller se considère-t-il comme un poète révolutionnaire ? Peut-on révolutionner l’écriture poétique en s’inspirant de formes classiques, à l’instar de l’ottava rima, strophe remise à l’honneur dans The Bone Flowers pour rendre hommage à Lord Byron ? La parole du satiriste, si virulent celui-ci soit-il à l’encontre des manquements ou quêtes les plus insensées de ses contemporains, laisse-t-elle poindre l’espoir d’une révolution sociale à l’horizon des vers ? Autant de questions auxquelles John Fuller répond dans une interview menée au printemps 2018.

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  • 1 Henceforth, we shall use BF as an abbreviation for The Bone Flowers.

1John Fuller was born in 1937 in Ashford, Kent. He was educated at St Paul’s School and New College, Oxford and in 1966 became a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. In his first book, Fairground Music (1961), he showed remarkable aptitude to compose poetry in a variety of conventional verse-forms, a talent for vivid descriptive writing, and a sophisticated wit and verbal virtuosity. Since then, he has enjoyed a distinguished career as an acclaimed poet and novelist. His collections were awarded the Forward Prize, shortlisted for the Whitbread Award for Poetry, the Costa Poetry Award, and were Poetry Book Society Recommendations. His novel Flying to Nowhere won the Whitbread First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His latest work, The Bone Flowers, was published in 2016 with Chatto & Windus in a special limited edition of 500 copies to celebrate his 80th birthday. This ten-part narrative poem pits the rhythms of life against the riddle of time through the unexpected story of Billy Emerald, a successful art collector and philanthropist. As Theophilus Kwek notes in Oxford Poetry (XVI.III, winter 2016–2017), The Bone Flowers is ‘brimming with historical anecdotes, lived detail, and well-timed political barbs, […] very much a cabinet of curiosities in its own right’ (58). Whether it may be considered a ‘revolutionary’ piece remains a moot point, though. Obviously, it is neither revolutionary in terms of politics nor in form… unless one bears in mind that the ottava rima stanza chosen by Fuller had also been used by Lord Byron in Don Juan—including bitter satire against certain evils, abuses and false values. For that matter, isn’t it somehow ‘revolutionary’, or ‘counter-revolutionary’—or both—to stick to traditional forms at a time when most poets endeavour to explore the most unsuspected modes of writing? In The Bone Flowers, ottava rima forcefully underpins merciless taunts directed at a high-minded academic milieu—‘the great and good, / The interested and uninterested, / [Who] would rush to a reception if they could’ (BF1 63)—or at the moneyed heirs and tax-collectors who ‘make contributions / Which cost them nothing, to national institutions’ (BF 30). And the poet more often than not proves radical in his opinions, especially when it comes to abolishing the monarchy or challenging the central tenets of today’s art world. In order to discuss such issues further, John Fuller agreed to be interviewed on The Bone Flowers and on revolutionary poetry at large, and I am extremely grateful to him for answering the questions I sent him by electronic mail in April and May 2018.

Aurélien Saby: Before we focus more closely on your latest book, The Bone Flowers (2016), I would like to open this interview with a couple of more general questions on your stances as a contemporary writer and public figure. Have you ever considered—or defined—yourself as a revolutionary poet?

John Fuller: General questions are often the most interesting, even if they are harder to answer! This kind of question, regarding the degree to which a poet is to be considered ‘revolutionary’, is always cropping up. I really don’t want to dismiss it out of hand, since readers have been taught that poetry advances at moments of deliberate change, when old habits are seen to be stultifying. The classic examples are, of course, Donne and his followers deciding that intelligence is to be preferred to melodiousness, or Wordsworth perceiving that an epic may be written out of ordinary experience. In the last century, the revolution was largely directed against the practice of verse in poetry, possibly the most radical of all such developments, and to my mind a dangerous one (Ezra Pound ‘breaking’ the pentameter).

But we have moved on from that point. Another theory claims that poets possess insights that will make society uncomfortable and change its ways. They claim that poets must be dissidents. Is this what you mean by ‘revolutionary’? I was once interviewed by the Romanian writer Lidia Vianu, who was promulgating her theory that contemporary poets were ‘desperadoes’.2 I had to disappoint her. I was no reckless outlaw in a Western, who has to be defeated at the end of the film by the lonely sheriff in the deserted streets. I was much more the mildly drunk newspaperman or bar-tender of the town, an observant commentator perhaps, but someone who keeps his head down when the shooting starts.

Having made this point, however, I must immediately qualify it. Every poet wants to be part of the tradition, even if he or she finds that they must implicitly attack received ideas of what that tradition is, when they begin their careers. In this way you have two ways of looking at new work: what does it tell you about the way poetry should now be written, and what does it tell you about the tradition that you hadn’t quite seen before? The by now commonplace idea that a great poet must create the taste by which he or she is to be judged is a part of this process. It can’t be wholly true, of course, because it doesn’t really take account of the great consolidators like Pope or Tennyson or Auden, but it can be true in small ways.

At the end of all this generalisation, I must come clean and say that I belong to the school of consolidation rather than that of revolution. But I do believe in advancing the practice of poetry through formal experiment, and I think that the reaction against modernism in the 1930s was healthy and necessary. There is a sense in which it suddenly became revolutionary to write sonnets again in 1933.

AS: What work(s) of yours would you deem most revolutionary, and why?

JF: I think that it would have to be something to do with works that have blurred the apparent boundaries between fiction and poetry. The ‘short short stories’ in The Worm and the Star perhaps, or the novel A Skin Diary, which uses fairly outlandish poetic methods borrowed from OuLiPo. My long fictional poems in the manner of Pushkin or Byron are less interesting, I think, in this respect, though they are comparatively unusual for their time, and I would be happy to think of them as going against the grain by reminding everyone of forms and methods that for some reason have been forgotten. Or reminding them that poems themselves can be fiction.

AS: So, The Bone Flowers is somehow revolutionary in this regard. In this interview, I have chosen to delve further into this long narrative poem that was published in time to celebrate your 80th birthday. Before coming back to the subject of revolution—in the broadest sense of the word—, let’s start from the beginning. When did the project of this work start? What was your original intention?

JF: The Bone Flowers was begun on the 19th of April 2015. The poem starts with an account of a visit by rail that I made to Newcastle to give a reading from a recently published collection of poems for children. For me this journey was a convenient preliminary, an entrée into a work that I knew would freely describe conditions in England and make use of my own experiences in the manner of Byron’s Don Juan, my chosen model, and I actually made a lot of notes on the journey. A deeper prompting to the writing of the poem was a visit I had made in March to Rome, to see the Museo Frati Cappuccini e Cripta Ossario and the room near the Spanish Steps where Keats died. These iconic loci of the commemoration of death make a profound impression on anyone who sees them. I knew that my hero (when I had created him) would have to end up in Rome. And I wanted to make him confront all our fears and superstitions about dying, and yet to give the poem an energetic lift of tone that would be some kind of a counter to gloom about death.

AS: Had you ever used ottava rima before? Was it a natural choice or had you considered other forms before finalizing your decision? Would you say that ottova rima may be regarded as a revolutionary stanza? Has it taken you to unsuspected—or so far unexplored—places?

  • 3 ‘The Pigeons’ is published in Gravel in my Shoe (45–62).

JF: I had used ottava rima before, for example in five invented stanzas of Shelley’s The Witch of Atlas in my novel The Memoirs of Laetitia Horsepole, and Shelley’s is a very different style from Byron’s. Ottava rima has its origins in lengthy Italian epics, and then when naturalised into English becomes mock-epic (Gay’s poem ‘Mr Pope’s Welcome from Greece’ is an early example). But used straightforwardly it has a great lyrical depth, as in much of Yeats, with his end-stopping and the freedom of assonance. I wanted to return to the free Byronic manner, where association of thought can interrupt the narrative and almost any subject can be included at whim. I had recently published quite a long poem in rhyme royal (‘The Pigeons’),3 so I was aware of both the possible effects and the stamina involved. And also, to a degree, the unusual demands placed upon surprising rhymes. As a matter of fact, the first stanzas to be composed were those about Ravel (III, 7-11; BF, 25–26) which I wanted to send along to an early April meeting of Magdalen’s John Florio Society (where the members’ work is discussed anonymously).

AS: Was the composition of The Bone Flowers easy or did you have to rewrite certain passages?

JF: The composition of a poem like this is both easy and difficult. You are required to simulate casualness of thought and indulge in association of ideas, so there are fewer structural problems than you might think. Byron is a master of this kind of informality. I particularly love the moment in Don Juan where he writes ‘I have forgotten what I meant to say’ (Don Juan, IX, 36).

But the stanza itself is tricky, and its various ways of exploiting rhyme require tact and invention. I suppose that there were a few false turns and readjustments, but I didn’t have to revise in any radical sense. Sometimes I had to scratch my head for a clinching stanza or cast around for a necessary insertion here and there.

AS: How long did it take you to complete this poem?

JF: I finished the poem on about the 6th of October, so it took five and a half months (with some adjustments in early 2016).

AS: I know that your editor rejected the original title, The Crypt of Pelvises. Why? How did you choose the current title?

JF: I wanted to call it The Crypt of Pelvises to focus attention on the Capuchin ossuary in Rome, and in my mind that was its title throughout its composition. But my Chatto editor thought that too anatomically rebarbative a title, and others agreed. This kind of thing is always a great trouble for writers. It’s like renaming your child. I drew up a list of about ten alternatives, and used the best of them for the present title and subtitle.

AS: While rereading Part Ten of The Bone Flowers, it occurred to me that there was something quite revolutionary in your definition of poems as ‘cycle[s] of completed cogitation’:

A poem’s manifold but singular,
A tower of strength if not a tour de force.
When free of you, it is your avatar,
Your map of thought, your memory’s resource,
Your consciousness, your neurons’ rich rotation,
A cycle of completed cogitation.
BF 96–97)

To revolve means ‘to move in a circle on a central axis’; in your lines, the ‘cycle’ keeps on completing itself on the occasion of each reading, doesn’t it? When you revolve around something, you ‘consider it repeatedly and from different angles’; so that each reading may be considered as a revolution of sorts, but with added value once you’ve returned to the point of origin… In Phaedrus, Socrates compares a noble writer to a farmer who sows gardens of letters for his own entertainment and pleasure. He draws his ‘map of thought, [his] memory’s resource’, so that in old age he will have reminders for himself. But his followers will also be able to enjoy such reminders, so that the farmer’s seeds keep on growing in other fields:

But nobler far is the serious pursuit of the dialectician, who finds a congenial soul, and then with knowledge engrafts and sows words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, and are not unfruitful, but have in them seeds which may bear fruit in other natures, nurtured in other ways—making the seed everlasting and the possessors happy to the utmost extent of human happiness. (Plato, Phaedrus 276e–277a, 137).

Is the ‘avatar’ in your line to be related to Socrates’s seed?

JF: The stanza you quote is, I suppose, a kind of manifesto about what a poem in essence is. A poem has broken loose from its creator, but still represents the nexus of thought and feeling which went into its creation. This is art’s claim to transcend death, isn’t it? You preserve something of the transient human character in words that have a longer shelf-life. This will be true of any poem, but it seems particularly true of the rambling psychological inclusiveness of the Byronic poem. There is a fine passage in Kipling’s ‘In Flood Time’ that I nearly used as an epigraph: ‘The mind of an old man is like the numah-tree. Fruit, bud, blossom, and the dead leaves of all the years of the past flourish together. Old and new and that which is gone out of remembrance, all three are there!’ I don’t quite understand your theory of ‘revolutionary’ reading and its relationship to being a ‘revolutionary’ poet. However, the poem that notionally survives the dead poet can certainly reveal new facets of itself, just as a person can. Your idea from Plato about the ‘seed’ that grows a version of itself in different fields is an excellent one: ‘our’ Byron is sown in his various readers’ minds and grows in different forms there.

2AS: And one of these different forms indeed is The Bone Flowers. It is now time we dealt with the narrative plot framing your poem, as I think your readers would be eager to know a little more about despicable, opportunistic old Billy Emerald. How did the idea of a crooked billionaire art-dealer come to you? Are there many of them among your circle of acquaintances? Is someone in particular targeted in your poem (that will be the gossip interlude of this interview)?

JF: I launched into the poem knowing that it must contain a narrative sooner than later but postponing decisions. I had most of the first canto down in draft before homing in on my antihero. I didn’t really want to have a central character who is acted upon rather than acting (in the Byronic mode). Not least because my character Tim in The Illusionists was very much that sort of person. My notes about the direction that the narrative might be going to take contain the resolution that the ‘villain’ hero is not going to be Everyman. Indeed, I expected that we could take lessons from a socially and morally egregious person. Emerald soon became the embodiment of the dubious idea that the perfected sensual life has an absolute, and therefore somehow everlasting, value, and that money is the only way of creating such a life. I quickly decided that this character could be both a City monster and an aesthete, and that this duality would give me something to bounce my own positions off. The powerful sometimes need to appropriate culture, as a signal of social success. I don’t think I had anyone particularly in mind as a model, although any extremely wealthy collector who seeks to impose his taste through his purchases will suffice, if you care to think of one!

  • 4 W. H. Auden is one of John Fuller’s most influential mentors. As a critic, Fuller is known also for (...)

AS: Lord Emerald looks like an older version of Tom Rakewell in Auden4 and Kallman’s libretto of The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky, doesn’t he? Could you tell us more about the choice of his name?

JF: I do like to take care with names. Emerald would represent the idea of the perfection of a precious stone. He is created by chance and by money. His nemesis Greengage takes him on because emeralds are green (‘green’ + ‘gauge’). And yes, their relationship becomes a Faustian one, like Rakewell and Shadow. It is all in Emerald’s mind, part of his superstitions about illness, but the fable of the Appointment in Samarra (which I wanted to get into the climax of the story right from the beginning of my laying out of the plot) does, I hope, lend a mythic or at least mysterious touch to the outcome, enough to give the reader pause (BF 87–88).

AS: What about the Dowager Countess Lady Sliphanger? There is obviously a pun in her name, isn’t there?

JF: The name Sliphanger might perhaps indicate the dodginess of that family and its estate (‘giving the slip’? ‘straphanger’?) but I don’t think I consciously intended that. The surviving member of the family, the ancient Lady Sliphanger, is a fragile creature with evident collarbones, you might say, evoking a silk slip hanging on a coathanger. But let me ask you: what was in your own mind when you said ‘obviously’?

AS: Well, to me ‘slip’ in ‘Sliphanger’ relates to the Countess’s difficult financial situation (venturing down a ‘slippery’—i.e. dishonest—track to pay her taxes), and ‘hanger’ means that she is ‘hanging on to’ (‘relying on’) Emerald to help her. I also thought she bore a likeness to old, ugly Mrs Slipslop in Joseph Andrews by Fielding. Your characters are reminiscent of 18th century types, aren’t they? Like degraded contemporary picaros taken out of engravings by Hogarth and meandering in today’s cities.

JF: Your Hogarthian point is a good one. That practice survived well into the 19th century: Trollope does it.

AS: Following the adventures of your fictional characters allows you to be quite critical of their—and our—world:

Think of the world that Emerald is leaving:
A world of envied self-aggrandisement,
A world of aspiration and achieving
Made possible by grave impoverishment
BF 58)

In a recent interview conducted by Alex Clark, you outspokenly claim a form of radicality: ‘I feel in my heart quite radical’ (The Guardian, Sat. 7 January 2017).5 We may thus now focus on some of the radical stances adopted in The Bone Flowers. A first one may be viewed as a call for a revolution abolishing today’s British monarchy:

Much better a republic in the end
(Although I know we will not get one soon).
A secular republic I commend,
BF 65)

Is this a joke, a whim? The British love their royals, don’t they? Are you intending to incur your fellow citizens’ wrath?

JF: No, I think many of us are justly critical of certain notorious members of the Royal Family! The Queen is always excepted, by reason of her astonishing devotion to duty, but this affection for her personally doesn’t forbid a republican position. Of course I am a republican!

AS: A wind of revolution blows on The Bone Flowers, especially in the sixth part where the satire is by turns scathing, bitter and defeatist—‘Jeremiah-cum-Juvenal’, as Auden said at the end of ‘City Without Walls’ (Auden 1994, 751):

Why will there never be a revolution?
The Church of Greed allows no heretic.
Theories of ownership and distribution
Sound like the ravings of a lunatic
Within the murmurs of a constitution
Preferring frequent carrot to crude stick,
The democratic myth of a stale polity
Forever postponing justice and equality.
BF 59–60)

Has the revolutionary spirit died in today’s Britain?

JF: I am a socialist, now supporting the Labour Party for the renewed left-wing manifesto it produced at the last General Election (which vastly reduced May’s majority, you will remember). This is hardly a revolutionary position, but so many of us on the left in the UK were initially brainwashed by Blair and now by the continuous onslaughts of a largely Tory press, that it is a relief to feel some new solidarity here, particularly with the young, who have been most affected by Tory policies. I was never taken in by Blair. And I truly hope that your Macron is not a Blair. He looks a bit like one! As for the ‘revolutionary spirit’, I think that there is such a tradition now in this country of an oscillating dialogue between left and right, that it may simply be a matter of a political adjustment, a return to a Labour Government who will fight against privatisation, privilege, austerity, and the retention of Trident. Hardly a revolution, more like common sense.

  • 6 This statement was first published in ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ (Auden 1994, 248).
  • 7 This line is extracted from ‘September I, 1939’ (Auden 1986, 246).

AS: What can a poet do to rekindle the revolutionary flame? Auden argued that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’,6 but he also said ‘all I have is a voice’7… a voice that may be inspirational! Where do you stand on this issue?

JF: Auden, as you know, was deeply upset by what was expected of him at the time of the Civil War in Spain. He had been seduced into the role of a writer with prophetic insights and therefore as a spokesman for the left, and he came to hate it. But it was an age of demagogues, and there was no danger of him becoming one. In 1939 (when he came out with the two celebrated phrases that you quote) he had arrived at the view that the liberal position of E. M. Forster was a viable model, and soon enough after that the war threw him into a kind of existential despair. I do think that he exaggerated the writer’s impotence.

Where do I stand on all this? I think that the writer can make a difference, and it probably depends on his or her view of the audience. Auden’s retreat into wartime works like The Age of Anxiety (which you yourself have analysed so expertly) bespeaks a kind of mysticism. Contrast this with an earlier directly political poem like his ‘Refugee Blues’, which can still bring a marvellous frisson of assent from an audience. I once read it aloud during an otherwise routine colloquium at the Hay Festival, and it suddenly shone out like a beacon of warm and constructive (and yes, perhaps, revolutionary) emotion. I don’t believe that even the most hard-line and racist Tory Brexiteer could seriously read that poem and not somehow pause to adjust his attitude to today’s Syrian asylum-seekers.

AS: Then we should also recommend that he read ‘Siege’8 (November 2016), one of your latest poems about Gaza and war in the Middle East. Have you been influenced by some contemporary ‘revolutionary’ poets?

JF: The interesting minor left-wing poets of my youth, such as Christopher Logue or Adrian Mitchell, were not as charismatic as their less political contemporaries, I’m afraid. For my generation it was the film-makers or playwrights who stood up to be counted, people like Ken Loach or Dennis Potter. The influence of poets on poets is a very haphazard thing. I could get as much political sustenance from Coleridge’s diatribes against Pitt or Byron’s against Castlereagh as from a contemporary. Some tremendously influential poets of our time have held reprehensible political views.

AS: Now, let’s move on to the arts. Is a revolution necessary in the art world where ‘galleries, museums, auctioneers, / […] colleges and other institutions / […] value, not ideas, but contributions’ (BF 16)?

JF: I’m afraid that the whole culture of museums in Europe is driven by colonial acquisition (think of our Benin bronzes or the Elgin Marbles). Within that culture, our national art galleries vie to amass representative collections, and that is all right as far as it goes. It’s good to be able to see Brueghels in London, and not have to travel to Amsterdam or Brussels. But acquisitiveness drives up prices, and high gallery prices have not historically benefited the painters themselves. Currently the best art galleries are mounting richly informative special exhibitions that are shared internationally and are a great benefit to the public. But I don’t think that their taste is reliable when it comes to contemporary artists. They are afraid of being found guilty of not welcoming the new (that default philistine position in the early years of the last century) and overcompensate.

AS: You don’t seem to hold artists like Tracey Emin (BF 17) or Jeff Koons (BF 66) in high esteem. Why? Who are the contemporary artists you admire most?

JF: My individual prejudices are clear enough from the poem, as you suggest. Emerald has his own private tastes, which are civilized and reasonable enough (II, 15, BF 17), but he promotes sensational artists because the culture of publicity can enable him to make more money out of them. There are now artists who become celebrities for reasons that are nothing to do with art, for being dismissively drunk on television, for example, or for cross-dressing. There are Royal Academicians who can’t draw. There is even conceptual art which is so ephemeral that it cannot be experienced more than once. Many installations require the technical assistance of skilled craftsmen, which is all right as far as it goes (think of the long-established foundry casting of bronze sculpture) but which sometimes develops into being a production-line divorced from the intervention of the artist.

This is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed some contemporary installations, from the better-known, such as Ai Wei Wei, to the lesser-known, such as Hiraki Sawa. But in these cases, the human, even political, dimension is quite apparent, and emotionally convincing. I have also enjoyed the massed cuboid hominids of Anthony Gormley, which were displayed at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern a few years ago. But in general, I don’t find any contemporary art that is in the same league as the products of High Modernism a hundred years ago. And this goes for music, too, but with rather more exceptions.

AS: One of the tours de force in The Bone Flowers consists in stepping into the shoes of a professional counterfeiter to expose all forms of forgery in the artworld while striking a blow against useless academic critics. How did the idea of the fake Shakespearian sonnets (BF 32–35) occur to you? Were you advised by Elizabethan specialists when you composed them?

JF: The pastiches of Shakespeare sonnets developed from one which I aired at a meeting of Magdalen’s John Florio Society quite some time ago. We sometimes like that sort of thing, mock scholarship, spoofs, translation of English poems into English, and so on. Then I wrote more when commissioned to produce something for a volume commemorating Shakespeare’s death in 2016 (the contributions had to relate to the sonnets). No advice needed! In fact, the Shakespearean scholars who edited the volume were remarkably reticent about my contribution, and I felt that they didn’t quite get it. Of course, we can imagine Shakespeare writing sonnets on a mythical subject like Tithonus and Eos. He wrote about Venus and Adonis, after all.

  • 9 John Fuller has always been fascinated by riddles. In 2011, he published a book about puzzles in po (...)

AS: You drew on a dizzying array of sources for these sonnets, didn’t you? Could you give us clues9 about some of the references?

JF: I put in allusions to Ovid’s Amores and his Metamorphoses. Shakespeare knew his Ovid very well. It all makes sense. (The other allusions, to Coleridge and Tennyson, are to give the impression that the sonnets had been around for a long time, which of course a forger would be careful to create). The subject is relevant to the poem, because it is about wanting to live for ever.

AS: Yes, the sonnets act as a keystone—or centre—around which the whole plot revolves, so that The Bone Flowers reads as a new unexpected—revolutionary?—contemporary version of the myth of Eos and Tithonus. However, some of your readers will easily recognise your signature behind these masks. Aren’t they actually indirectly signed by the counterfeiter-poet himself in a witty aside: ‘Now, “W. S.” was surely an illusion? / Perhaps it was “M. E.”’ (BF 36), i.e. ‘me’, John Fuller? Furthermore, such a ploy seems to reveal quite a lot about the fruitful, complex interplay between imitation, inspiration and creation. To what extent could it be interpreted as a mise en abyme of your ars poetica?

JF: As for a theory about such imitation, I don’t think I have one. My volume The Space of Joy is full of poems written in the manner of others (e.g. Petrarch, Coleridge, Stevens) but the device is only one among many others. Coleridge in his youth often wrote as though he were Milton. John Clare actually thought he was Byron. I don’t see any dangers or embarrassments in it. It’s a pleasant collusion between poet and reader, a dimension of meaning that is creatively stylistic.

AS: Your work makes a foray into a plethora of genresfrom autobiography to satire, the vanitas, the pavane or the danse macabreand borrows imagery from numerous artists including Bernini (BF 82), Caravaggio (BF 81) or Facteur Cheval (BF 8), among others. Not only are the various forms and styles absorbed in your verse, but they also morph into a very unique, unprecedented whole. All in all, isn’t The Bone Flowers somewhat ‘baroque’, in the sense of an irregularly shaped gem characterized by grotesqueness, extravagance, complexity or flamboyance? Have you ever considered yourself as a baroqueor neo-baroquewriter? A radical baroque poet, more than a revolutionary one?

JF: This generic variety you mention within the overall lurching propulsion of Byronic ottava rima may well be true, since as I’ve suggested the form can modulate into different moods according to the degree of enjambement or metrical weight employed, and according to other stylistic factors that can affect the feel of the stanza. Certainly, there are small set-pieces within the flow of the poem that are varied in attitudes and nuance. Variety and surprise are key factors in a poem, I think. Dullness is the dutiful offspring of fulfilled expectation! Am I ‘baroque’? I have never liked to think of appropriating labels, though I did feel myself to be something of a surrealist in my youth, particularly in the little films I made in my late teens, and latterly I have sometimes thought of myself as a contributing aficionado of OuLiPo. The trouble with the term ‘baroque’ is that it can mean different things in the different arts. I would be happy to think of a poem of mine as being akin to a Trio Sonata by Quantz or Locatelli, but not so certain that it might be seen as mannerist in the style of certain poets of the late 17th century or quite as over-the-top as the Bernini of the Sant’ Andrea cupola. However, the process by which a poet like Crashaw achieves what has been called ‘the spiritualization of sense’ is probably endemic to all poetry. I do like extravagance in poets (Wallace Stevens, particularly) and grotesqueness is at the heart of surrealism, isn’t it? The skeletal bouquets of the Capuchin Brothers are quite obviously baroque, and so it may be that the procedure of the poem similarly tries to order its grisly material into acceptable philosophical shapes.

AS: Well, it is now more than tempting to quote your description of those baroque ‘skeletal bouquets’:

Pelvises splayed like blossoms; skulls in lines,
Temple by temple, ignorant of ears;
Femurs laid down like vintages of wines;
Digits like crystal dripping from chandeliers;
Basket work of rib-cage; clusters of spines;
Altars of patellas stacked in tiers;
Stars made of toes and jaws in asterisks;
Spirals of discs and bony obelisks.
BF 94)

Paradoxically enough, death here is not portrayed as a form of destruction, but rather as life-affirming reformation, engendering new compositions in the similes (‘Pelvises splayed like blossoms’, ‘Digits like crystal’, ‘clusters of spines’). Combination produces new shapes and sensations, including in the sounds, through internal echoes and consonances, hence calling to mind Epicure’s or Lucretius’s views on death:

Death does not destroy things so completely that it annihilates the constituent elements: it merely dissolves their union. Then it joins them in fresh combinations and so causes all things to alter their forms and change their colors, to acquire sensation and resign it in an instant. It all goes to show that it is important in what groupings and positions the same primary elements are combined, and what motions they reciprocally impart and receive. (Lucretius, Book II, 1001–1009, 60)

JF: That Lucretian point is borne out by modern science, isn’t it? We cannot destroy matter, only rearrange it. I can see that the stanza you quote appears to make something delicious out of hideous bones. Well, those old monks were artists too!

AS: They created ‘Bone Flowers’ indeed! Now, when does an interview end? Maybe when music starts carrying out a revolution in the reader’s mind and body, blurring the boundaries between music scores by Ravel (BF 25–26), Poulenc (BF 97–98) or even Steve Reich and their poetic translations:

Expecting time to be a clock that ticks,
Your brain will trip and skitter on his traps.
For every four, your frightened pulse beats six.
You process weird ectopic flams and taps.
You’re hunched above your flickering ruffs and licks
And scatter rat-a-plans in rattled raps.
Your terrified by all this tarradiddle
And punch-drunk with his drummer’s paradiddle.
BF 27)

Usually, composers set words to music. Conversely, here you set music and beats to words, and your lines pay tribute to Steve Reich while engendering a melody of their own. This is a revolutionary way of writing, isn’t it? How did you compose such lines? Did you work with / from the music scores? Did you collaborate with musicians?

JF: An interview only ends when the interviewer says so! On the question of music, the stanza you quote refers to Steve Reich’s 1970–1 work ‘Drumming’ that was influenced by drummers he heard in Ghana. I thought that the strange effects he produces were very like the cardiac irregularities that Emerald experiences (and which I share: I had a cardiac pacemaker fitted in 2016). The whole notion of the ectopic in music (for example in Stravinsky) would be worth writing about. But poetry isn’t an obvious medium for representing music, despite what is often said about works like Eliot’s Four Quartets. Even the words of famous songs don’t metrically evoke their melodies, so that you have to know them to hear them in your head. I love collaborating with composers, but I have learned that it is no good pretending that the verbal ‘music’ of any words provided will survive in the musical setting.

AS: So altogether, here the beats bounce back and forth in time and space between Ghanaian players, Steve Reich’s drummers, the poet’s own heart, his characters’ bodies and the readers’ own vocal cords. Isn’t this a stunning form of rhythmical revolution? Thank you, John.

May, 2018

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Auden, W. H., The English Auden (1977), ed. Edward Mendelson, London: Faber, 1986.

Auden, W. H., Collected Poems (1976), ed. Edward Mendelson, London: Faber, 1994.

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, trans. Martin Ferguson Smith (1969), Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2001.

Plato, Six Great Dialogues, trans. Benjamin Jowett, New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 2007.

Selected bibliography of John Fuller’s works:


Fuller, John, Fairground Music, London: Chatto & Windus, 1961.

Fuller, John, The Tree That Walked, London: Chatto & Windus / Hogarth Press, 1967.

Fuller, John, Cannibals and Missionaries, London: Secker & Warburg, 1972.

Fuller, John, Epistles to Several Persons, London: Secker & Warburg, 1973.

Fuller, John, The Mountain in the Sea, London: Secker & Warburg, 1975.

Fuller, John, Lies and Secrets, London: Secker & Warburg, 1979.

Fuller, John, The Illusionists, London: Secker & Warburg, 1980.

Fuller, John, Waiting for the Music, Edinburgh: Salamander Press, 1982.

Fuller, John, The Beautiful Inventions, London: Secker & Warburg, 1983.

Fuller, John, Selected Poems 1954–1982, London: Secker & Warburg, 1985, and Penguin Books, 1986.

Fuller, John, Partingtime Hall (with James Fenton), Edinburgh: Salamander Press, 1987; Penguin Books, 1989.

Fuller, John, The Grey among the Green, London: Chatto & Windus, 1988.

Fuller, John, The Mechanical Body, London: Chatto & Windus, 1991.

Fuller, John, Stones and Fires, London: Chatto & Windus, 1996.

Fuller, John, Collected Poems, London: Chatto & Windus, 1996.

Fuller, John, Now and for a Time, London: Chatto & Windus, 2002.

Fuller, John, Ghosts, London: Chatto & Windus, 2004.

Fuller, John, The Space of Joy, London: Chatto & Windus, 2006.

Fuller, John, Song & Dance, London: Chatto & Windus, 2008.

Fuller, John, Pebble & I, London: Chatto & Windus, 2010.

Fuller, John, Writing the Picture (with David Hurn), Bridgend, Wales: Seren Books, 2010.

Fuller, John, Dream Hunter (with Nicola LeFanu), London: Edition Peters, 2011.

Fuller, John, Selected Poems 1983–2008, London: Chatto & Windus, 2012.

Fuller, John, Sketches from the Sierra de Tejeda, Thame: Clutag Press, 2013.

Fuller, John, The Dice Cup, London: Chatto & Windus, 2014.

Fuller, John, Gravel in my Shoe, London: Chatto & Windus, 2015.

Fuller, John, AWOL (with Andrew Wynn Owen), Birmingham: The Emma Press, 2015.

Fuller, John, The Bone Flowers, London: Chatto & Windus, 2016.

Fuller, John, A Week in Bern, Thame: Clutag Press, 2016.

Fuller, John, Double Dactyls, Nottingham: Shoestring Press, 2017.


Fuller, John, Flying to Nowhere, Edinburgh: Salamander Press, 1983; Penguin Books, 1983.

Fuller, John, The Adventures of Speedfall, Edinburgh: Salamander Press, 1985; Penguin Books, 1986.

Fuller, John, Tell It Me Again, London: Chatto & Windus, 1988.

Fuller, John, The Burning Boys, London: Chatto & Windus, 1989.

Fuller, John, Look Twice, London: Chatto & Windus, 1991.

Fuller, John, The Worm and the Star, London: Chatto & Windus, 1993.

Fuller, John, A Skin Diary, London: Chatto & Windus, 1997.

Fuller, John, The Memoirs of Laetitia Horsepole, by Herself, London: Chatto & Windus, 2001.

Fuller, John, Flawed Angel, London: Chatto & Windus, 2005.

Fuller, John, The Clock in the Forest, Nottingham: Shoestring Press, 2019.

For children

Fuller, John, Herod Do Your Worst, London: Novello, 1968.

Fuller, John, Squeaking Crust, London: Chatto & Windus, 1970.

Fuller, John, The Spider Monkey Uncle King, London: Novello, 1972.

Fuller, John, The Last Bid, London: Deutsch, 1975.

Fuller, John, The Extraordinary Wool Mill and other stories, London: Deutsch, 1980.

Fuller, John, Come Aboard and Sail Away, Edinburgh: Salamander Press, 1983.

Fuller, John, You’re Having Me On! Trowbridge: Laurel Books, 2014.


Fuller, John, The Sonnet, York: Methuen, 1972.

Fuller, John, W.H. Auden: A Commentary, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Fuller, John, Who is Ozymandias? and other Puzzles in Poetry, London: Chatto & Windus, 2011 and Vintage, 2013.

As editor

Fuller, John, The Dramatic Works of John Gay, Wotton-under-Edge: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Fuller, John, The Chatto Book of Love Poetry, London: Chatto & Windus, 1995.

Fuller, John, The Oxford Book of Sonnets, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Fuller, John, W.H. Auden, London: Faber, 2005.

Fuller, John, Alexander Pope, London: Faber, 2008.

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1 Henceforth, we shall use BF as an abbreviation for The Bone Flowers.


3 ‘The Pigeons’ is published in Gravel in my Shoe (45–62).

4 W. H. Auden is one of John Fuller’s most influential mentors. As a critic, Fuller is known also for his masterful W. H. Auden: A Commentary.


6 This statement was first published in ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ (Auden 1994, 248).

7 This line is extracted from ‘September I, 1939’ (Auden 1986, 246).


9 John Fuller has always been fascinated by riddles. In 2011, he published a book about puzzles in poetry entitled Who Is Ozymandias?

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Aurélien Saby, « John Fuller: A Revolutionary Poet? An Interview with the Author of The Bone Flowers (2016) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 56 | 2019, mis en ligne le 21 mars 2019, consulté le 18 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Aurélien Saby

Aurélien Saby earned a PhD in literature from Sorbonne University in 2013. He wrote his dissertation on the work of W. H. Auden. He teaches English at lycée Hélène Boucher in Paris and is a member of the VALE laboratory. He has published several articles dedicated to W. H. Auden, John Fuller and David Hurn.

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