In 1961 Al Alvarez published The New Poetry, one of the few poetry anthologies of the 20th century which changed the way that readers thought about poetry. It held up the American poets John Berryman and Robert Lowell (and, in later editions, Sylvia Plath) as exemplars and, among British poets, asserted the primacy of Ted Hughes. It also had a combative introduction which inveighed against gentility as the stifling vice of poetry written by English people.

The force of Alvarez’s attack is undiminished by the years and, to celebrate The New Poetry and introduce it to a new generation of poetry readers, Magma asked Todd Swift to interview Al Alvarez. The interview took place in September 2005 at Alvarez’s London home. Todd writes:

My interview with Al Alvarez was conducted in late September at his house and lasted for approximately four hours. Those who have read John Le Carré’s description in the liber amicorum for his 70th birthday, The Mind Has Mountains, of being welcomed into Alvarez’s eclectic, comfortable home can imagine the scene. Al, smoking his trademark pipe, offered me tea, little biscuits, and then, as the afternoon and our freewheeling conversation continued, nuts, and whisky with ice (his and Sylvia Plath’s drink of choice in the early 60s). Alvarez is friendly, hospitable, witty, and when he speaks his language is colloquial, racy, exciting – then again measured and thoughtful, revealing a man both at home lecturing at Princeton, or playing high stakes poker.

It is difficult to suggest the full range or importance of Alvarez’s activities over the years as a poet, novelist and critic, let alone mountain climber and poker player. Before he was 30, he was writer-in-residence at Princeton, and had published two books, including The Shaping Spirit, a series of seminal essays on modern poets. As poetry editor of The Observer from 1956 to 1966, he championed contemporary poetry and decisively shaped the reception, in the UK, of the major mid-20th-century American poets, Robert Lowell, John Berryman and Sylvia Plath . The New Poetry, arose from this work.

In The Savage God he was forthright about suicide, and restored dignity and perspective to the death of Plath, helping to establish how she would be remembered in future. He was also responsible for bringing the poetry of Eastern Europe to wider attention in The West, and edited The Faber Book of Modern European Poetry. His most recent books are Where Did It All Go Right?, an autobiography, and The Writer’s Voice.

Swift: In The Writer’s Voice you say being a writer is a mad affair worth having.

Alvarez: The trouble is you fall in love with language, as musicians fall in love with sound (music is my other great passion). But writing is a lonely business. If you teach at a university you know you’ve got people listening to you. When you’re freelance, you’re on your own. The writing goes out into the wide world, and it disappears. It’s like being a lighthouse keeper.

Swift: The New Poetry was the first book of poetry I read when I was young, and I loved it. Did you think it would become so influential?

Alvarez: No. It was on the best-seller list – not that I made any money out of it.

Swift: You say in your famous introduction to The New Poetry “The London old boy’s circuit can be stupid, parasitic and conceited…” Those were hard words. That didn’t earn you many friends, presumably.

Alvarez: It earned me a lot of enemies. I intended it that way; it was a kind of fuck them.

Swift: Some of the poets included in The New Poetry have seen their reputations decline. With hindsight, is there anyone you might have wished to exclude, or include?

Alvarez: I perhaps should have included W.S. Graham and Edwin Morgan. The trouble with editing The New Poetry was that my remit was too broad. Tony Godwin at Penguin thought there was something happening in English Poetry, the Movement and so on, and as I was editing for The Observer he said okay do something, so I had to put in all these people I didn’t much admire.

Swift: It is something of a conflicted book – the introduction, which is more famous than some of the poems in it, seems to contradict some of the poetry selections: Larkin, Enright, Gunn.

Alvarez: I liked Gunn. Enright too – he was witty, disabused, not a bull-shitter. Larkin wasn’t a bull-shitter, either. Larkin – I know some of his poems are very beautiful – but there’s something terribly English in the worst sense about him: everything is awful, and he is slightly superior to anyone with an appetite for life.

Swift: When editing The New Poetry, you must have had the Faber Book of Modern Verse in the back of your mind?

Alvarez: Oh sure, you betcha.

Swift: In your review of the Faber Book of Modern Verse, reprinted in Beyond All This Fiddle, you talk about how it seemed as if “sensitivity and intelligence no longer seemed mutually exclusive” in poetry; and that’s what you thought the editor, Michael Roberts, was showing could happen, in the poetry he was selecting. That sounds a lot like the kind of poetry you got excited about for your generation.

Alvarez: Absolutely. What I am is a kind of old fashioned modernist. I believe all that stuff about poetry should be as least as well written as prose, and that having a poetic sensibility doesn’t mean you have to be stupid, which was part of that late romantic thing.

Swift: In The New Poetry you talk about the negative feedbacks – Auden’s influence – traditional forms in chic contemporary guise. Second – blockage against intelligence in favour of emotion (the influence of Dylan Thomas). Third – an attempt to show that the poet is not a strange creature inspired, but just the man next door, exemplified by Larkin.

Alvarez: Yes, the poet is more than the man next door. Poets do have a preternatural sense of language. Did you see that lousy film Sylvia?

Swift: Yes. You’re in that as a character. There’s a weird scene where they are playing word games at university.

Alvarez: That was the only convincing scene in it. Because once they start the later life, it is just soap opera, and they talk in soap opera terms. Where are they using the language of poets? Words matter. Poetry is a wonderful thing because what you end up with is something perfect – one word out of place and the poem isn’t perfect, and you know it. And that’s why I don’t like Walt Whitman and Ginsberg and these loose-mouthed poets.

Swift: This returns us to The Writer’s Voice. You talk convincingly of how poetry unlike prose can get locked in to place – the key turning in the lock. You can perfect a poem.

Alvarez: You’ve got to. If it isn’t as perfect as you can make it, then it isn’t finished. If you buy a cheap pipe, after you smoke it for a bit, what happens is the surface gets uneven, and one of the reasons is they put a little putty in to it to fill the hole in the wood – and after the pipes get hot and they sweat the putty pops out. And it is the same with poems. In a bad poem there are bits of putty.

Swift: The funny thing about your antipathy to Ginsberg and Whitman is that you have sympathy with Lawrence, but he loved Whitman. In The New Poetry introduction you were ideally seeking a kind of fusion of Lawrence and Eliot – the passion of Lawrence and the intelligence of Eliot – but you didn’t follow Lawrence all of the way with some of his enthusiasms, or obsessions.

Alvarez: And I even married Lawrence’s grand-daughter. For a period I couldn’t read him at all.

Swift: Anything in Ginsberg you appreciate?

Alvarez: When he is being funny. When he relaxed and didn’t feel he had to speak for a generation.

Swift: You championed many poets in the 60s and 70s that you thought were interesting, and many of them still are: Robert Lowell, John Berryman…

Alvarez: Lowell is a wonderful poet. Cal [Robert Lowell] never wrote when he was manic. He only wrote poetry when he was coming down. Still, he published far too much. That is a mistake. You can just about do it if you are Milton or Pope or Yeats, but you have to be more critical.

Swift: The Writer’s Voice is a defence of a kind of rigorous poetry rarely written now – passionate about life but utterly serious.

Alvarez: Utterly serious and bringing to bear intelligence on life and things, their feelings – not just venting them but actually thinking about them. My favourite quote from Eliot is that throwaway comment: “the only method is to be very intelligent”. I really think it applies, to everything.

Swift: I am interested in the gentility principle debate you brought up in the 60s: that evil – in history (the Holocaust, Hiroshima), the libido, and the self – was being repressed in British poets and poetry.

Alvarez: They weren’t interested in it. If you read those Movement poets, you see their poems were written like essays. The thumping iambic pentameter – totally predictable. You don’t need that shit, I feel. That’s not what poetry is about. Poetry is all about ear. In that way, free verse is much harder to write than traditional verse – it doesn’t give you any safety nets – but a good poem written in free verse is just as tight, as carefully woven as a sonnet, but it is a question of being true to the movement of the line.

Swift: No one in the 20th century had that sense of the line more than Lowell.

Alvarez: I once said to Cal, casually, that I was absolutely convinced that you could give me 100 lines by different poets, but I could tell you which one was his. Because you could always hear it. There’s that wonderful line in Skunk Hour – “my ill spirit sobs in each blood cell” – well, you could hear that sob in his poems.

Swift: You mention in The Savage God that Sylvia Plath was disappointed not to be in the first edition of The New Poetry – the irony being that arguably her work was the most relevant to it.

Alvarez: The only book Sylvia had published at that point was The Colossus. New Poetry came out spring 1961, and that’s when she started writing all those incredible poems. She would have been the star of it if it had all happened a year earlier.

Swift: In the sense that they say the scientist changes the experiment by observing it, do you feel that, by observing these poets at this time, you in any way actually encouraged them to write their best work? In Sylvia Plath’s case, was it possible that, because she saw The New Poetry anthology, it gave her confidence to move towards her later work?

Alvarez: I am absolutely sure of it. We talked about the ideas in it. I think that what The New Poetry did – because I had a certain limited critical authority – it gave her the go-ahead to do what she now began to do. The thing is… look: in The Savage God there is a thing about my meeting up with an editor of one of the leading literary magazines of the time a couple of weeks before Sylvia killed herself, at some lousy literary party, who said “Have you seen Sylvia recently?” I asked why? He said “Because I think she’s in really bad shape. And she sent me some poems.” I said “Which ones?” Daddy, Lady Lazarus – twenty of them, all classics now. I said “Oh, which ones are you going to publish?” He said “None, they are too extreme for my taste.”

Swift: It seems remarkable that any editor of sound judgement could have so signally failed to recognize Plath’s ability. Why were editors so unreceptive to Plath’s work?

Alvarez: They couldn’t hear it. They all thought poems should look like Larkin’s.

Swift: You say about her that “I believe she was a genius.”

Alvarez: Yes, I think she was.

Swift: Did you know any other poets of genius?

Alvarez: Lowell. Zbigniew Herbert. ‘Zbig’ translated into English is still, for me, the best poet of the second half of the 20th century. Ted Hughes was also a genius when he was on form, but he had this thing where he absolutely had to write too much.

Swift: One of the things that strikes me about your poetry is that it is very honest, risk-taking in being so open, stripped bare of many stylistic tricks.

Alvarez: I write poetry when I get lucky, and write prose for a living. I don’t get lucky that often. I think it is complicated. You have to have your head in the right place for a poem to happen. You have to – there is that weird feeling, I have to get something down. Sometimes you can hear a poem before you know what the words are. There’s a poem of mine, The Gate, and I could hear that one before I wrote it. Mermaid is one of my own favourite poems.

Swift: I’d like to talk briefly about some of the other poetic influences in your writing life. Donne, of course.

Alvarez: Yeah, I really love Donne. I have to say I suspect given my track record he was the guy I most wanted to model my life on. He was the first to write a book on suicide, you know.

Swift: Was that Biothanatos?

Alvarez: Yes. I love the idea that when you read a poem of his he’s right there in the room with you – there he is, bingo. That’s kind of terrific.

Swift: Are there any younger poets you enjoy reading?

Alvarez: I don’t keep up with much contemporary poetry. I read some poems by Don Paterson which I thought were very good. I read the new magazine The Liberal – they’re good on poetry. Alice Oswald, good poems. David Harsent is very good. Alan Jenkins, too. Once you walk out, you just don’t see the books in the same way.

Swift: What made you walk out on the poetry world?

Alvarez: I got so depressed by the whole poetry business – the petty bitching. Envy is the fuel the poetry world drives on.

Swift: You say that, when you heard Plath’s poetry you knew it was that rare thing – a real poem. How does one know when it is a real poem?

Alvarez: You just know, like listening to music.

Swift: When you reviewed Robert Lowell’s Life Studies you knew it was real poetry.

Alvarez: Yes, but I also knew what was going to happen. The people that loved the rather ornate pellucid thick-textured stuff of Lord Weary’s Castle, presented with plainer work, wouldn’t know what to do with it. There were pieces by eminent critics saying he’d lost it.

Swift: To get a book as good as Life Studies on your desk, that doesn’t happen every decade. You called it like you saw it, and you called it right

Alvarez: Calling it like you see it may be satisfying on all sorts of levels, but it sure doesn’t make you lovable.

[Al laughs and we both agree this is a perfect place to end the interview.]