(An International Journal of Poetry)
Volume-1 december-2011 Number-2
An E-Interview with Kevin Hart
(Interviewed by Pradeep Chaswal)
(Professor Kevin John Hart is a renowned British-Australian poet, theologian and philosopher. Kevin Hart was born in London in 1954, moved with his parents to Australia in early 1966, and attended university at the Australian National University, Stanford University, and the University of Melbourne. He now holds the prestigious Edwin B. Kyle Chair of Christian Thought in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia where he also holds professorships in the Departments of English and French. He is the author of many books in the field of Christian theology and philosophy. His poetry is collected in ‘The Departure’ (1978), ‘The Lines of Your Hand’ (1981), ‘Your Shadow’ (1984), ‘Peniel’ (1991), ‘New and Selected Poems’ (1994), ‘Dark Angel’ (1996), ‘Nineteen Songs’ (1999), ‘Wicked Heat’ (1999), ‘Madonna’ (2000), *Flame Tree: Selected Poems* (Bloodaxe Books, 2002), ‘Night Music’ (2004), *Young Rain* (Bloodaxe Books, 2008) and *Morning Knowledge* (Notre Dame University Press, 2011. Hart's poetry has garnered multiple awards, including the Greybeal-Gowen Prize for Poetry in 2008, the John Shaw Neilson Poetry Award in 1977, the Mattara Poetry Award in 1982, the Wesley Michel Wright Award in 1984, the NSW Premier's Award in 1985, the Victorian Premier's Award in 1985, the Grace Leven Prize for Poetry in 1991 and 1996, the Christopher Brennan Award in 1999. Harold Bloom, writing on the back cover of Kevin Hart's 1999 volume of poetry, Wicked Heat, srongly praised Hart, saying that he is the "most outstanding Australian poet of his generation", and one of "the major living poets in the English language". Bloom also names Hart as one of the eleven canonical writers of Australia and New Zealand in his book, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, specifically praising Hart's book Peniel and Other Poems)
Chief Editor: How would you define the creative and poetic process as you experience it?
Kevin Hart: I don’t know that I can define it at all, and I’m not sure that I can describe it very well either. My poems tend to be composed very quickly, in just a few minutes, and while I do several drafts of each poem, fewer now than I used to do, I mostly tinker with small things in the later drafts. Because composition is usually so quick, it flies past me. When I write I seem not to be aware of anything except the stream of words as a rhythmic current.
Chief Editor: Science and technology have turned modern man into an extremely rational being almost devoid of an emotional approach to life and nature. Under these circumstances, what is the future of poetry?
Kevin Hart: Science and technology shape our world, to be sure, but they don’t define it entirely. Religion and politics push it this way and that way as well, and not always for the better. I am not at all sure that as a species we are becoming more and more rational. In some areas we are: science makes great strides, telling us more and more about the universe; and surely the discoveries of cosmology and entomology equally move us, and make us wonder about the extent of creation and the details of life around us. Medicine keeps us alive and healthier for longer than ever before. Technology helps us all in mostly invisible ways. It’s good when one comes home at night that a flick of a switch can fill a room with light, and another flick of a switch can make a room grow warm! Technology allows us to do what we wish with it. You can use an ipad to write a poem, to play music, to create all sorts of things, or you can use it to twitter away your time. The more screens, the less attention one pays to anything, it seems to me; we’re in danger of losing the contemplative dimension of life, serene attention, and replacing it with its negative counterpart, fascination.
I wish science and technology did make us more rational — able to make better judgments about the distribution of wealth, for example — but I’m afraid that they don’t. In some ways modern people are becoming less rational. Think of the growing power of fundamentalist groups in the world religions. In politics, too, we are less rational than we used to be. Even now, as this interview takes place, the United States is seeking a presidential nomination for the GOP, and one would hardly think that any one of them is an “extremely rational being”!
I should say that poetry — all poetry and not just that of Dryden, Pope and Johnson — has its own rationality; even surrealist poems follow their own logics or graphics. I think that’s something that we have learned from the Jena Romantics: each poem has its own rationale. And not all poetry has emotion. Pope has, Racine has, and Ariosto has, to name three poets who are sometimes regarded as emotionally restrained in different ways, but some contemporary poetry is terminally academic: I’m thinking in particular of those remnants of the avant-garde, whether they continue in colleges or outside them.
I think strong poetry will survive, as it always does. In the West at least, the reading of poetry has usually been a niche concern.
Chief Editor: Modern man treats nature as a rival. Will poetry bring us back to nature in the near future or some remote future?
Kevin Hart: Since Francis Bacon we’ve been putting nature to the question, and now nature is putting a question to us: Do you want to survive as a species? Some poetry can help us to contemplate the natural world all the better. I think of Robert Gray’s poems. Some poetry will certainly not direct us to nature: the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school and its subsidiaries, for instance, turns its back on everything but language. Let’s not forget that popular science can help us to appreciate nature. I imagine that David Attenborough’s programs on television have educated a great many people about the natural world.
Chief Editor: What role can theology play in stopping man from destroying the ecological and environmental balance of nature?
Kevin Hart: Christian theology can endlessly remind us, in all sorts of ways, that God created all that there is and charged us to care for what is around us. But it cannot do so simply by quoting Scripture. Stevens tells us not the use “the rotted names” in poetry, and we theologians need to hear his advice in our own ways, for theology is full of what people today half-heartedly regard as rotted words — “sin,” “Fall,” “Grace,” “sacrifice” — though at the same time I think that something in those words weighs heavily upon them. We live inside symbols, even when we think we don’t, and they press upon us. One huge challenge of Christianity today is to speak faithfully to people while being equally faithful to the Gospel. It’s not a matter of coming up with a new vocabulary but of energizing the one we have, which means that we must revitalize those words from within.
One of the most crucial areas of contemporary theology is eco-theology, though, to be sure, at the moment many of its practitioners know far more about ecology than they do about theology. Over the years I’ve learned a lot from Tony Kelly’s book An Expanding Theology, which I continue to think is powerfully prescient. But, really, it’s not theology that has the lead role here; it’s preaching and ministering in parishes. Ordinary church-going Christians need to hear far more about our stewardship of nature from the pulpit and in Bible class; it needs to be something that is introduced into our prayer lives, our practice of confession, indeed our entire sacramental lives.
Chief Editor: You are teaching theology. Could you throw some light on the contemporary relevance of theology and spirituality?
Kevin Hart: It’s interesting that you specify the two things distinctly, “theology and spirituality.” It’s a characteristically modern thing to do. Traditionally, theology and spirituality were one, the examination of the mystery of God taking place in a context of prayer and charity, and we need to think deeply about how they can be one again, though in a new way. Theology seeks to show how God has concrete meaning in our lives. It does this not by regarding God as an abstraction — the being of beings, the highest being, the first being, that which beyond being, or whatever — and then finding instances or traces of God acting in the world. Rather, theology seeks to determine those moments when we encounter the meaning of God in a concrete way. In my view, Christian theology must begin with the Gospel testimony that Jesus is the Christ, and, more narrowly, with the teaching and acts of Jesus. It is in hearing the parable of the Good Samaritan that we concretely grasp the meaning of “neighbor”; and it is in hearing the parable of the Prodigal Son that we concretely understand what “God” means for Jesus and can mean for us as well. Thus understood, theology does not deviate in principle from spirituality. So my theology begins with what I call “the phenomenology of the Christ,” which is twofold. On the one hand, I seek to unfold the various ways in which God is given to us in and through Jesus Christ; and, on the other hand, I seek to show that, through his teaching and acts, Jesus is engaging in a particular mode of phenomenology. Only He can be the datum of divine manifestation, and this is the basis for our claims about Incarnation, divine Sonship, and so on.
All systematic theology seeks to be a reasoned articulation of the whole faith; it gives us a picture of how to live. In order to do that freshly, and to be answerable to life as we experience it here and now, it must always unsay what has been said theologically in other times. “God” can never become a theme in theology, for God can never be comprehended by a system, not even Aquinas’s or Barth’s. This doesn’t mean that we rewrite the Creed — plainly, theology must stay within its lines if it is to be Christian theology — but it means that we must keep Christian truths perpetually alive, turning them around and looking for new facets that gleam. And it means that we must always return to the Gospels to try to understand what Jesus means by the Kingdom, by how we are to live in such a way as to be in harmony with God.
Chief Editor: Was there any teacher in school or a professor in college who inspired you to write poetry?
Kevin Hart: I started writing poems when I was thirteen years old, in grade eight of Oxley State High School in Brisbane. The following year a new young teacher, Miss Whitty, made us learn T. S. Eliot’s “Preludes” for homework, and that had a big effect on me. In the same year another teacher, John McGrath, made us learn a number of poems by heart, including Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which made a tremendous impact on me. I started to read poetry all the time; I worked washing cars at a local garage on the weekends in order to get enough money to buy poetry books; and I went to the Queensland State Library to read modern poetry, mostly American. I should say, though, that I also bought math books at the same time: a love of math and poetry came to me at one and the same time.
Chief Editor: Would you share with our readers any memorable events in your poetic career?
Kevin Hart: I went to the Australian National University as a first-year undergraduate in 1973, and immediately joined the ANU Poetry Society. It was a vital group of undergraduate and graduate students, whose pleasure it was to host vast, sprawling poetry readings. I say they were “sprawling” since some of them went on for a very long time and got rather rambunctious, but for some of the readings at least you had to audition to see if you could get a spot at the microphone. Not everyone was given a place!
The older poets in Canberra were very generous with us younger poets. I met Alec Hope and Judith Wright, David Campbell and Rosemary Dobson: a living canon. Once David Campbell, who was of questionable sobriety at the time, shouted out after hearing a poem he liked, “That’s it! That’s the real thing! That’s poetry!,” lost his footing, and fell backwards through a plate glass wall. Everyone looked round, as though it were a dream: David got up, picking big shards of sharp glass from his jacket, and shouted, “I’m okay. On with the reading!” A couple of readings ended with angry words and even a few punches being thrown. I well remember a fierce argument about enjambment.
There were many lunches and dinners, all sorts of poetry events primed with cheap claret, and some wonderful parties, especially those hosted by David at his Monaro property “The Run.” No cheap claret there, only vintage champagne. David and I would swap books of poetry. I remember introducing him to a poem by Philippe Jaccottet one afternoon at his house, and I think Jaccottet had a benign influence on his final style. For a year I stayed with Alec and Penelope in their house in the Canberra suburb of Forrest, and I shall always cherish my memories of their kindness. David and Alec, in particular, read my first poems and gave me the encouragement I needed.
Chief Editor: May we expect that globalization and the revolution in information technology will bring about a cultural synthesis and ultimately a new culture will emerge?
Kevin Hart: You make me think of those science fiction films set in the distant future in which the people of whole planets wear the same outfit and speak the same language! But we don’t need to go that far, or as far as you propose. The world has become American already; it is already the norm to speak English, American English, even though the United States is declining as a world power, both economically and politically. I doubt that in fifty years the world language will be Chinese or Hindi, even though the world economy may be driven more by China and India. It’s not just a matter of language, it’s a matter of American culture, especially popular culture, being the norma normans, the norming norm.
But let’s face it, we simply don’t know: the curve of change in information technology has been so steep in the last couple of decades, and is only getting steeper, that we have no clue what will happen in even a few years. Doubtless there will be the possibility of more sharing of ideas and writings (in translation), but there may also be such an information overload that people are deflected from learning anything interesting or valuable. Technology can be abused as readily as it is used, and it is far from unlikely that it shall be used to edit out anything unwelcome, surprising, or challenging.
Chief Editor: What is your experience of “art and life”?
Kevin Hart: Maybe you’re thinking of Yeats’s lyric “The Choice” that poses the alternative between “Perfection of the life, or of the work”? It’s a false alternative, of course, but — if I may adapt Kafka — in the quest for perfection I’d always back the work rather than the life.
Chief Editor: After your memorable poetry collection Young Rain (2008) poetry lovers were eagerly waiting for your next poetry collection, and now your thirteenth poetry book Morning Knowledge (2011) is available. Would you share your experience of writing these poems?
Kevin Hart: I wrote Morning Knowledge in the anticipation and then in the shadow of my father’s death. He died in the early hours of the morning: hence the title. Yet the title also quotes St Augustine’s notion of “morning knowledge.” Augustine wondered why Scripture reads, “And the evening and the morning were the first day.” Why does evening come before morning here? Augustine asked a good question, and his answer is startling. He was interested in the angelic cognition of Creation, which, he says, happened in two stages. First, God revealed the scientific structure of the cosmos, and this is “evening knowledge.” Then He showed the angels how His love suffuses all that had been made, how everything created was linked by love to the Creator, and this is known as “morning knowledge.” My new book of poems has the two senses of “morning knowledge” as its vanishing points.
Chief Editor: In Morning Knowledge (2011) after the first reading of the poem entitled “You” readers feel as if the poet (Kevin Hart) is sitting before them and narrating an experience of the past, is there any autobiographical touch or element in this poem or in any other poem or poems of this collection?
Kevin Hart: There are few poems I write that draw on actual events in my life; I don’t think of poetry as representing events. At the same time, events often prompt a poem to be written. What is written is itself an experience, an exposure to the unknown, though one that tends to pass very quickly. I am often surprised by what a poem tells me. Of course, each poem draws on a deep fund of feeling and thought, so everything I write is autobiographical in that sense, though it happens, I think, that some feelings from years ago get dredged up by a metaphor and become attached to other currents that are more recent. You certainly couldn’t write a narrative of my life on the basis of my poems.
Chief Editor: You have walked a long path in your poetic journey. Thirteen collections of your poetic career are naturally a great contribution to the domain of poetry. Would you please share with us your feelings as to how you perceive your creative journey from The Departure (1978) to Morning Knowledge (2011)?
Kevin Hart: I started writing poems as a teenager, though I was a relatively late bloomer when it came to writing poems that might endure. There are only a handful of poems I would wish to preserve from my first book, and these are in Flame Tree: Selected Poems (2002). It was with The Lines of the Hand (1981) and Your Shadow (1984) that I started to write the poems in which I recognize myself more fully, and I think that Peniel (1991) marks the beginning of my maturity as a poet. Thereafter I have explored lyricism in different ways, pushing now into the element of song and now into more extended lyrics.
Chief Editor: What are your plans for your poetic journey in the years to come?
Kevin Hart: I have a chapbook coming out in the New Year, Sugar, and I have written some more poems since then, though I’m not at all sure where they are leading me. I would like to write some longer poems, even if they are in sections, and I would like to write some more songs like “Nineteen Songs,” though not necessarily love lyrics.
Chief Editor: What is your advice for young poets?
Kevin Hart: The very best advice for young poets has already been given. As Pound wrote on a postcard to W. S. Merwin, “Read roots, not twigs.”
Chief Editor: Your message for poetry lovers and readers?
Kevin Hart: Poetry enables us to see what otherwise would be invisible, unfelt, and unthought. Take care of it.