John Walsh meets... John Fuller

Full of feeling
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At 7.40 pm on Wednesday evening, in the Groucho Club's crammed and sweaty Soho Room, they named the country's best poet. The judges of the classy, Bookerish Forward Prize looked at a shortlist of new poetry collections, that included the work of last year's Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, and decided to hand the pounds 10,000 prize money to John Fuller, for his book Stones and Fires (Chatto).

Poets don't get in the news much. They have to be Nobel prizewinners, or suspected pornographers, or the creators of the "nation's favourite poem" before they out a quiver in the needle of public awareness. Fuller's sudden reclame will make few headlines outside the literary pages of the broadsheet papers; but to a hefty percentage of the country's most notable versifiers, he has been their mentor, impresario and chief of men.

As Professor of English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford, for the last 30 years, he has seen a bewildering number of his students become poets and writers - many of them published for the first time by Fuller himself, in his tiny Sycamore Press imprint. The Fuller Gang amounts to a literary generation of writers in positions of power: James Fenton, now Professor of Poetry at Oxford (like Fuller's father, Roy), Alan Jenkins and Alan Hollinghurst, both prizewinning authors and presiding spirits for years at the Times Literary Supplement; Mick Imlah the poet and former poetry editor at Chatto & Windus, now also at the TLS, Andrew Motion, the multi-faceted poet, novelist and Larkin biographer, now Professor of Creative Writing at East Anglia... A conspiracy theorist might infer from this roll-call that some Parnassian Cosa Nostra has been operating for years, stretching from Magdalen's draughty cloisters to the heart of Grub Street, and they'd probably be right. But you can't blame Fuller for that. He does not (like, say Leavis) send his acolytes into the world to spread some moral message, nor (like, say, Eric Griffiths at Cambridge) send them out to become vitriolic critics and media hustlers. Fuller's influence is far more benign and creative. He has played the role of guru, exemplar and cher maitre for so long, he has quite forgotten to give himself the airs that go with it.

"I'm not sure about prizes," he said, when we met the next day, which was National Poetry Day. "I don't know how far you can seriously raise public consciousness about poetry. Having a 'National Poetry Day', like a No Smoking Day, is just shelving the problem. Things which should by rights be every day are not best served by these things." He is happy, however, by the way poetry's profile has changed since he started out in 1961 with his debut collection, Fairground Music. "When I began, poetry was very academic. You published little pamphlets from fancy presses. It was rather... chaste. There wasn't much public reading. Then there was poetry and jazz, which I don't think worked, though I love jazz. Then there was the moment when the American Beat poets arrived in Oxford in 1957, and were very charming and exciting... But you get these lurches towards popularity all the time. In the Thirties, don't forget, you had Auden putting poetry on the cinema screen, with Grierson and the GPO film unit. Whenever there's a move like that, I think it's very healthy. It's always good to show that poetry isn't the little depressed lyric people believe it to be, that it's something bigger."

"Little depressed lyrics" are not what you get from Mr Fuller. His prodigious talents have been sprayed over 13 verse collections, six novels, an anthology of love poetry, critical works, children's books. His ability to turn his hand to the most demanding and recherche poetic forms, from the alexandrine to the double dactyl, makes him the natural heir of WH Auden, whom he holds in virtually unquestioning reverence. His technical skill is seen at its best in his light verse, in poems like "Valentine", a beguilingly varied litany of louche desires ("I'd like to make you Charlotte Russe / I'd like to make you reproduce") that many smitten poetry-lovers, disdaining the products of the greeting-card industry, have mailed to their sweethearts in mid-February.

"That was its purpose, of course," murmurs Fuller. He is a modest, rather diffident man, happier explaining some prosodic detail than talking about himself. There's a wariness about his light blue eyes as they lock on to yours (sitting with him, you soon slide into tutorial mode) and across his acre of brow worry-lines run like musical staves, waiting to be soothed with notes.

For all the game-playing skill of his light verse, there's a core of difficult, hard-won, secretive wisdom about his more serious poems that may elude the casual reader. Like Thom Gunn's heroes, Fuller's most brilliant poems "turn/ with disinterested hard energy/ like the stars". They are not open to simple exegesis, and neither is their creator. This has bothered Fuller's critics and fans alike in the past. They claim he is all dazzle and no feeling. They point to the way the titles of his collections -The Mechanical Body, The Beautiful Inventions - draw attention to their inorganic essence, their made-up-ness. They go on about his "artifice" and his "civilised obliquity". Did he mind?

"Hmmm. I think a lot of people can write poems that are howls of anguish. I think I've probably written such things and then torn them up. But I think obliquity is a serious part of what poetry does. It's a come-on. It's more than just being clever. It's saying, here is a verbal artefact. You, dear reader, will have to work this out, and will get pleasure from doing so. But what it contains at its heart is a form of truth about emotions or feelings which is to a dgegree generalised or hypothesised or fictionalised. There are long poems of mine that are full of feeling, but transposed, that are one step away from anything I might say in my own voice." He shook his head. "Quite honestly I don't understand what more people require of you."

Stones and Fires, the prize-winning collection, offers something new to Fuller fans: the spectacle of a poet becoming, simultaneously, more public and more private than they had encountered before. The judges' chairman, Alan Jenkins (that's right, one of Fuller's ex-students, but an incorruptible chap and a previous Forward winner) was in raptures: "The book has all the virtues Fuller's known for, the verbal richness, the wit, the dandy stylishness, but there's also a lot of deep feeling - grief, sorrow, a kind of world-woe - coming strongly through the poems. The subjects aren't altogether new but you feel there's a deeper connection with events and with the loss he's suffered in his own life." The book opens with two spectacular set-piece reflections on history and political strife. The first is an elegy to Angus McIntyre, the senior history tutor at Magdalen and a friend of Fuller's from way back. "He was a wonderful tutor and a most humorous man," says Fuller. "To some extent, we lived our lives in parallel, as academics, as fathers. We were together at a college Christmas dinner, said farewell, and he drove off to Scotland and was killed on the motorway near Preston". The poem "History" puzzles away at the concept of history and how chronically we fail to make sense of it - to read the signs, to interpret "the right way to proceed", to learn from past failings, before yielding to Fuller's aching desire to memorialise his old friend, with his gleeful piss-taking and his valedictory "Take care, laddie". The second poem, "Europe", is a tour de force of 22 sonnets, in which Fuller inspects the continent with the detachment of an astronaut and sees nothing but internecine strife, bitter violence, civilisation suddenly imagined as a slumberous, threatening beast in a cage.

"I have written public poems before," said Fuller, "but yes, this sonnet sequence is newish for me. I was very affected by the Bosnian conflict right back in its early days, say 1991 / 2. I found myself profoudly affected by things I was reading about and seeing - in particular, a photograph of someone having their head cut off with a saw. I was on holiday in Corsica at the time, just lounging around, and started writing these sonnets. It was something to do with the distance I was from home, about being in the Mediterranean, in the middle of Europe, and being able suddenly to think about the place in some kind of perspective, while being very troubled about Bosnia..."

It struck me that the language of the sonnets displayed a cold fury, a disgust with "Europe's stinking armpit and unravelling sleeve" (which I took to mean the Balkans) that's pitched some way from his usual cool urbanity. Fuller jumped on the word like a policeman. "Urbanity? You know what urbanity means? It means two men who live in the same city who are able to talk to each other in the same language. I think any writer - any citizen - feels that if we do that enough, we probably won't cut off each other's heads with a saw..." It's the myth of nationhood he most detests, the revival of ancient tribal hatreds - a Europe which becomes "one ethnic group torturing another ethnic group out of some ridiculous, spurious ideal. It's so depressing."

Fuller is 60 next year, but doesn't look it. (He looks, in fact, like a retired gangster in a television cop series; he'd suit a Pringle sweatshirt and a set of knuckledusters). One studies his face for signs that he is turning into his father, Roy Fuller, the poet, who famously held a career in a building society all his life; but the father's lean features and galloping-major moustache belong to another generation. "He played a kind of role as Corporation Man," remembers the son fondly. "He liked his professional life. He was very good on committees, unexpectedly gregarious. He was a shy man, but he came to life in the Woolwich, which he cared for enormously. He hated the way building societies were tending - how they started as mutual societies and now they were becoming limited companies. He loathed that. My father was an idealist and a socialist, very strongly so, and I think some of his later cultural attitudes, the old-bufferdom that some people complained of, were very misunderstood."

Roy Fuller died a couple of years ago and the poems devoted to his memory in Stones and Fires are some of the best Fuller has ever written. In particular there's "A Cuclshoc" which has the unusual distinction, for a poem about a toy badminton set, of reducing all who read it to tears, including your humble scribe. The title is a childish mangling of "shuttlecock" in a letter to a father who is abroad; the image of the shuttlecock, hovering suspended and not-quite-reachable in the air, assimilates both the father absent and, 50 years later, the father dead.

"It as an unusual poem for me because it uses a real letter that I'd written to my father," said Fuller. "When my mother died, I got a whole lot of papers, and I didn't remember writing this letter. He was in the RNVR during the war, you see, working as a naval air-fitter. My mother and I moved around the country with him while he was training and suddenly he was whipped off on a troop carrier. I remember him going. I remember him having to shave off his moustache because you weren't supposed to have moustaches in basic training." John was an only child. He spent the war years in Blackpool with his mother and her mother, then the family moved south at the end of the war and settled in south London. ("We came back a bit too early - I remember a V2 rocket blew our windows out in Blackheath.") The war provided him with a slew of images that appeared in later work, especially in The Burning Boys, which opens with a small boy spying from a cupboard as his sexy aunt and her friend take turns weighing their breasts in the kitchen scales; "and I remember newsreels of Belsen - it must have been a conscious decision to show those sights to everyone, and probably rightly."

His career as an Oxford don has constituted a kind of constantly shifting and renewed family life for some years; Fuller and his wife Prue, who teaches handicapped children in Oxford, have a cottage in Wales, where the most creative of his students (or well-favoured, or pushy, depending on whom you talk to) are invited to stay in vacations, in order to write and swap ideas and spur each other on. "Favouritism? I wouldn't call it that," says Fuller defensively. "It wasn't a college duty. These were just students I got on with or thought were interesting, or were keen to write. I mean you couldn't have everybody up to stay. Some students might not want to write..." And the ones who gravitated to Fuller's side - would he nurse their talents along? "It sounds so impersonal and deliberate, put like that. I was just being friendly. And most of my friends now are former students."

Was there a competitive atmosphere in the cottage? "Perhaps slightly competitive," he admitted. "It was creating an environment where you could get work done. Perhaps it was selfish because it was very good for me. If you've got a houseful of people who know they have to get up, work all morning, do something energetic in the afternoon, and read aloud in the evening, it's stimulating. And they still come. Alan [Hollinghurst] still comes a lot, and writes. I think there's a nice feeling that we're getting on with it..."

Getting on with it is what Professor Fuller does best. Thirty books done, his Collected Poems published next year, a new generation of aspirant bards to be guided and calmed down, a fresh set of projects, new poetic forms to tackle ("I found the Pushkin stanza very difficult," he confesses, "but I took it that the difficulty it created was part of the point..."). A prodigious and apparently tireless maker, he is a one-man assembly line of poetry, in which every invention is a refinement of the last, and technical brilliance is only a means to an end. "I think a lot of the things I do luckily don't get noticed, and I'm glad," he said finally. "A poem should be just a thing you read and it should work on you. You shouldn't be able to see the machinery."

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