UNSUNG Issue 3, Summer 2009

Interviewer: Matt Byrne

What was your initial inclination to set off on the path your research has taken? What early reading or influences?

When I was travelling around the north-west of England in the 1980s, teaching at about three universities a week and trying to get a full-time job, I started reading Kenneth Burke. I found him an inspiring figure because he used to do something similar: teaching a term here and a term there, never being given a permanent post. In his case, he didn’t want one, though! Anyway, reading his books opened up a whole new way of looking at the world. He advocated what he called the ‘comic corrective’, so that we don’t start taking ourselves too seriously and don’t start imposing our ideas on other people. He wrote about literature as ‘equipment for living’, and he saw both literary works and critical works as attempts to come to terms with a situation, not as final statements.

Music and poetry tends to be a medium which you enjoy using to illustrate your points. What is the power behind these forms and are they as powerful in the modern age?

As a teenager in the mid-sixties, I got interested in William Blake, T S Eliot and other poets because of listening to Bob Dylan and the Beatles. I think that the new emphasis on lyrics and their meanings at that time was hugely important, and still is today. Students have impressed me by the sensitivity and depth of their responses to song lyrics, so I think that there must be a hunger for meaning. Unfortunately, pop music is everywhere these days, simply as background noise. I loathe piped music! The best of it deserves to be taken seriously and listened to carefully.

Your work and interpretation of theory tends towards an eco-conscious and empathetic relationship with the environment, have you ever undergone any work to aid in its defence?

As a student, I was heavily involved in left-wing politics, to an extent which I now regret. I became very disenchanted with Marxism in the 1980s, and gradually moved from ‘red’ to ‘green’ politics thereafter. My support of environmental movements is almost entirely financial, apart from supporting the odd local campaign and attending meetings. I do admire dedicated eco-activists. I suppose if I were young and fit I’d support them more practically. I just hope that my teaching and writing might be making a difference.

Are there any writers or artists that you’ve come across recently which you feel deserve a mention?

I hate to admit it, but I don’t read many contemporary novels. However, I was really impressed by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which has a sombre ecological message. Our own resident poets are producing great work, and I might also put in a word for my friend and former colleague Jeff Wainwright, whose recent volumes have been really challenging. As I’ve got more and more interested in country music, I’ve looked out for new artists in that field. I discovered Gillian Welch about five years ago, but the Handsome Family only in the last year or so. They seem to me to play what we might call ‘real’ music, which is good and gloomy. They belong to the same tradition as the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, the Louvin Brothers, Gram Parsons, Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. As for other popular music, I’m afraid I tend to listen to old favourites (including any recent work they’ve done): Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Richard Thompson, the Incredible String Band and Donovan. I revere Nick Drake as much as anyone. You will gather how behind the times I am when I say that I only discovered the wonderfully lugubrious Smiths just as they were disbanding! I’m also ashamed to say that I didn’t discover the splendid, graceful music of my colleague and friend Dominic Williams until three years ago. In classical music my taste is very conventional: I like Beethoven, Mahler, Elgar and Vaughan Williams – with only the odd contemporary composer, such as John Tavener. (Some people would say he’s very odd indeed!)

You have several publications in circulation dealing with everything from ecocriticism to myth to an intense speculation on the Beats. Has the road to this success been a hard one?

I honestly wouldn’t call it success. I feel as if I’m still just starting out – partly due to the fact that I didn’t get a permanent university position until I was middle-aged! My only ‘best sellers’ have been The Green Studies Reader and Myth. I’m hoping that Beat Sound, Beat Vision will go into paperback soon, which will help it reach a wider readership.

What, in your opinion, is the lasting benefit someone could draw from the Beats and their work?

I would hope that serious readers of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Snyder would find themselves opening up to the spiritual dimension of life. I think that their turn to the East, particularly towards Buddhism, was decisive in waking up the West to a much wider understanding of what we mean by words like ‘sacred’. Of course, we’ve got their friend Alan Watts to thank for making us see that Jesus and Buddha are speaking the same language. Also, Watts and Snyder are the great gurus of green spirituality, which is going to become more and more important as we realise that we need to treat the earth as sacred rather than plundering it and laying it waste.


What has your time at MMU been like? What are your opinions on its teaching methods and organisation?

As I say, I didn’t get a full-time position until quite late on, but I do remember how things were before the expansion of higher education: small seminar groups and a much more relaxed atmosphere. Lecturing at university sounds an easy job but it’s really very stressful nowadays, given the sheer numbers of students. Also, there’s a huge amount of marking and administration that goes with the teaching. Sometimes I do apologise to the students because of the overcrowding and the unsatisfactory accommodation. Other times I’m aware that I come across as a grumpy old man concerning lateness, attendance, etc.  Another problem is that it’s getting harder and harder to be a scholar: there’s so little money available for research leave. Without the time to write, there’s not much chance to develop new ideas – which then feed into one’s teaching. Having said that, I am grateful to have been given the chance to develop units of my own, and it’s been really gratifying to see many students engage with them enthusiastically.

What are your plans after you’ve left the university? Are there any more papers and publications that you’re planning to write?

I’m due to retire in five years or so, and I would hope to keep on writing at least until then. Ideas include a guide to ‘green reading’ and a guide to the songs of Leonard Cohen. I was privileged to see Cohen’s concert last year at the MEN arena: a terrible venue, but he transcended it with a superb performance. It was the best pop concert I’ve ever attended – and I’m old enough to have been at the Free Trade Hall in 1966 when Dylan went electric! But as for further work, it all depends on persuading publishers of the need for such books, and then finding the time to write. With each book proposal, it’s like starting all over again. After retirement, I would like to live out in the wilds and become a recluse, but my wife isn’t so keen!

And finally… Leave us with a quote!

My academic hero is, as I say, Kenneth Burke, on whom I wrote a worthy but rather dull book. I often quote to myself his saying: ‘Every way of seeing is a way of not seeing.’ It’s worth bearing in mind when you think you have got everything sorted out. Burke also says, more bluntly: ‘We always avoid being stupid like other people by being stupid in ways of our own.’ If you’ll allow me one more of his, I think this is worth dwelling on, particularly by people who think they’ve ‘arrived’ and are proud of having prestigious positions in their various institutions: ‘Men build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss.’ Amen!