Seán Hewitt on Tongues of Fire, the androgynous lyric and ‘pre-elegy’
Seán Hewitt’s poetry collection, Tongues of Fire, interweaves meditations on the natural world with lyrics on sex, grief, loss, as well as hope and new life. Poems inspired by the Irish tale of Buile Suibne or The Madness of Suibne give way to a series of elegies for the poet’s father. Published by Jonathan Cape, the collection itself draws on the sacred and the profane; grace mingles with violence, as the physicality of the woodland merges with physicality of the body. It’s a curious book and an exceptional debut.
I speak to Hewitt over the phone from Dublin about his collection, the altered states of first-person lyric, and how elegy changes over time.
Tongues of Fire marks a before and after period in your life. What does the book mean to you now?
The book changes for me as I look back at it. It’s one of those things that coalesces after it becomes a physical book; you begin to see it as untouchable. It almost takes on a depersonalised quality because it’s written, done, and out in the world.
I wanted Tongues of Fire to be ecological in the sense that everything is knitted into each poem, so that each poem would give you another glimpse at looking at grief or sex or whatever it was – and that those things are not separable. I wasn’t trying to write a poem about grief or a poem about sex. I was hoping that each of them might communicate with the other. Looking back, I can hear the poems speaking to one another in different ways.
It’s been interesting to hear readers respond. Because readers tell you things you never noticed yourself or draw out resonances that you weren’t aware of – and that can make you a little self-conscious going forward.
Have readers found anything in the collection that surprised you?
One of the things I that did surprise me – and it may sound strange that I surprised by it – was that people responded to Tongues of Fire as a book of nature poetry. Although that seems obvious to me now, I never fully considered the book as a book of nature poetry. I was probably more interested in themes of sexuality, relationships, and the body; all these things that are not necessarily just nature poetry.
I was very touched by some of the readings. Someone emailed me to say that the poem ‘Petition’ had meant a lot to her when she was pregnant. The final lines are about bringing life to the surface unharmed, and I think she had been quite concerned for her pregnancy. It had resonated with her in a way that I could never have meant it. It’s interesting how significance is added to poems or found in them by readers. It’s as if they have their whole life again for everyone who reads them.
Death and new life are closely tied in Tongues of Fire. Named after a fungus that infects juniper branches and metastasises like cancer, the title poem is an elegy for your father. On several occasions, I’ve heard cancer referred to as a malignant parody of pregnancy – an uneasiness between growth and life.
There’s a poem in the book called ‘Ilex’. Originally I sent it to a competition and my name wasn’t attached to it. When I met the judges at the end, they were very surprised that I wasn’t a woman because it seemed to be a poem about breastfeeding and raising a child. Of course, that is what the poem is about. But I think it’s interesting if you remove the image of the poet, how different the poem can be. Almost anyone can speak the text, can be the ‘I’ of the poem. So it’s interesting to me that the poem could be genderless or androgynous in some way, that it could also speak to experiences I’d never had.
Perhaps this is why readers have latched onto the ecological elements of the book. Because nature poetry is a convenient meeting place, with deep roots and traditions, for grappling with subjects that are difficult to get a handle on.
I think so. The overarching similarity of the poems is the natural world. I understand why it would be a common denominator. It’s a strong tradition, like you say, of speaking through a set of images or landscapes that seem to have an emotional or symbolic resonance. I’d never lived in the countryside. In fact, although some of those nature poems seem to be taken as wild expanses, a lot of them are in my head: city parks, gardens, places that are not inaccessible to the majority of people. But I think we love our imagined landscapes, too. I like to hear how people imagine the landscapes of the poems I thought about – a path or a park in Liverpool.
Do you see yourself writing in a particular tradition of ecological poetry? I saw that the Guardian had called the collection Wordsworthian. Elsewhere, you’ve mentioned Alice Oswald.
I’ve probably been most inspired by someone like Gerard Manley Hopkins. I’m not actually a fan of Wordsworth. Of all the grand Romantic poets, I love John Clare. What I balk at with Wordsworth might be something that I’m concerned about in my own writing. We do this a lot. I say I don’t like people that are perhaps similar to me. Or I recognise a tendency in myself for the Wordsworthian, which is something I try to hold back on. Perhaps when I read Wordsworth it makes me cringe because I recognise my own tendencies to want to be that sort of poet too.
I find the more brutal aspects of poetry, aspects that Romantic poetry can brush over or transcend, interesting. And I get a lot of that brutality, in some ways, from people like Mark Doty. I really enjoy reading Danez Smith’s work, the way they can throw words up against each other inside a form. There’s an energy to those poems which I think echoes Hopkins. And I really love those poets too.
I’ve circled the phrase ‘Lyrical Ballads’ on a bit of paper in front of me. Lyrical ballads is not an unfair term to describe Tongues of Fire, is it?
I think you’d be right. There’s a fair resonance in that I was very interested when writing the book in how lyric and narrative could go together. The poems do attempt to tell a story, to draw the reader through each poem, to link up places or ideas that wouldn’t ordinarily go together in a linear sequence.
In his letters, Hopkins says he admires Tennyson most when he is at his least Tennysonian, when he’s moved beyond his characteristic style – beyond the lyric moment.
It’s a long time since I read Hopkins’s letters. His sonnets often start off with something he notices – a hawk or whatever it might be. Then the poem turns, and it becomes about Christ or God. He moves from the seen to the unseen, from the immediate moment to something beyond that. I hope a poem of mine would try to do the same. I always start with an immediate moment and ask it to take me somewhere. Sometimes that means stacking up a few things on top of each other to see what they add up to, to see what the connection is.
Poetry lives in the unspoken things between connections. I remember reading one of Mary Ruefle’s essays. She talks about the poem as a hyphen – a connecting of things which, if the poem weren’t there, wouldn’t otherwise have been connected. I see the poem as beginning in one place and trying to get somewhere else. I was trying to think what exactly connects those things and would only count the poem a success if the connection is something I hadn’t realised before. Sometimes the poems admit the failure of that. There are moments in the book where I recognise that one thing doesn’t connect to another, that there is no linking point, at least that I can think of. Or that it’s futile or self-serving to find a link between points. But even acknowledging a dead end can be significant.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the poetry community recently after Ocean Vuong’s comments about what makes for a successful metaphor. Isn’t the process you’re describing, of moving from the visible to the invisible – in Hopkins’s case, a kind of transcendence – another way of describing metaphor?
I would probably take a step further back in the argument. Any poem is a metaphor, since it tries to create a space between what is inside a person and what is on the page. It hopes to find the best shape, the best language, the best location, the best imagined journey that will get you to that pre-verbal ‘think’. I would probably see the poem as inherently metaphorical, even if the language wasn’t metaphorical, because you’re attempting to make an image or a scene that charges and connects, that allows something else to carry over.
In Ocean Vuong’s Instagram, he was talking about how best to connect objects or add to the original, to draw something out of it. Every choice a poet makes in a poem is an attempt to do that with the ideas they have. For example, how does rhythm get that across? It’s more abstract and not just located in the connecting image.
Every poem is invented. Even if it’s telling you it’s happening right now or has happened in the past, it’s still a construction that attempts to give you a place to think beyond it, about something that the poem itself can never really think about. The poem is always a window onto something bigger.
Does a poem succeed or fail by its metaphor then?
If we think about the poem as a window – a window that you give to someone to look through to see something else – your technique is how well you blow the glass. Like, how smooth is that glass? How many scratches, marks or wobbles are there? There are also moments where your glass might be imperfect but what you’re hoping to convey is the wobbly, distorted image on the other side. The faults can usefully draw attention to themselves as well.
‘Suibhne is Wounded, Confesses’ draws attention to worn Romantic tropes, like the flight of fancy, in a similar vein. It recognises that perhaps we’re not using the right words – but that these words will be enough.
We often talk about the imperfections of language. A lot of poetry can be self-reflexive and caught up in what it can’t say. But at the end of the day language is all we have, so we better do the best that we can by it. If you find there is something you can’t say, sometimes saying the opposite helps too. You can also point at the absence in the middle. If I remember the poem you’re talking about rightly, that’s what it does. It says all the things that are not – almost a kind of ‘Shall I can compare thee to a summer’s day’ or something.
Stephen Sexton calls elegy a context. I wondered if you considered elegy in this way.
Yes, definitely. I think everything has the capacity to be elegiac. There isn’t an object in the world that couldn’t become symbolic of something lost, given the context. I also think that Tongues of Fire became elegiac after the elegiac poems were put at the end of it. The first poem in the book was written a long time before my Dad died but it became different afterwards, when you know what happens by the end of the book. It seems to signal forward. The first poem in the last section of the book I had written some years ago. But I put it in the last section of the book because it seemed to me to be an elegy now, in a way I had never known it was an elegy when I first wrote it. Yes, elegy is a very strong force. It can bend the significance of poems that go before it.
I was struck by your poem ‘Two Apparitions’ in Poetry Birmingham. The lyric ‘I’ of the poem reflects on the ghost of his father. Soon we realise that we are the reflection looking back at us. It’s an elegant image. But I think it also speaks to elegy as a context; in this instance, of standpoint and how meaning shifts with it.
It is a strange poem because it does all of those things that you say, but it’s also entirely true. I couldn’t say whether it was a hallucination or whether I was half-asleep still. But I could see my Dad when I woke up. It really did flip my sense of reality. And when you put that in a lyric poem, the ‘I’ is so important, the person experiencing it – I wanted to get at the boundary of what the ‘I’ is and how stable that person looking is. There are times when you feel less an ‘I’ than other times. I suppose that’s what I’m interested in now, perhaps even more so than when I was writing Tongues of Fire.
Merleau-Ponty has this idea that, when you’re looking at something, your senses come from one body but converge outside yourself. We animate the external world. I wonder if the lyric poem does this too. It lifts the ‘I’ outside the speaking ‘I’ to constitute a landscape that has different subjects which speak back fragmentally. I wonder if the lyric poem is inherently an animated space, animistic in some ways. We have to recognise the power of everything else in the poem also to be a thinking thing.
You describe the final poems, written before your father’s death, as pre-elegies. This suggests that elegy can happen before grief.
I think grief is anticipatory. The second you are told that someone is dying, or something is going, you automatically begin to imagine what it would be like to experience that loss. I think it’s a psychological response. You imagine situations you might find yourself in in order to prepare yourself for them. I think you begin the grieving process before the elegiac moment has arrived. You’re already looking into the future to the point at which it will happen.
I read a book about natural history and South America. During the Victorian period, naturalists travelled there because they thought the place was in an early stage of evolutionary development. They thought it was a museum of what the world had been like before. The book put it really well; that we do not know what will constitute the past at any given moment. You don’t know what’s about to go from present to past. You don’t know what the past is going to be constituted of next. Everything takes on the significance of what might be lost.
When you are approaching that elegiac moment, the landscape takes on the tenor of something that might no longer be there. So I think that’s what I meant about pre-elegies, in that everything may be the subject of elegy because you are steeling yourself for the moment it happens.
Is it appropriate to call your writing post-elegiac now?
I think it is fair to say it is post-elegiac now. Once you’ve bridged the gap – once you’ve crossed that elegiac moment – you do see the world in a different way again. You come out the other side and everything is changed by it. Because you are a different person.
Seán, thank you.
Seán Hewitt was born in 1990. He lectures in English literature at Trinity College Dublin, and is a Book Critic for The Irish Times. He won a Northern Writers’ Award in 2016, the Resurgence Prize in 2017, and an Eric Gregory Award in 2019. Tongues of Fire (Cape, 2020) is his debut collection of poetry, and is shortlisted for the 2020 Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, the winner of which is announced on Thursday 10 December.
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