David J. Constantine
- Salford, Lancashire, England
Freelance writer, poet and translator, David Constantine was born in Salford, Lancashire, in 1944.
He is a Fellow of Queen's College, Oxford. His poetry books include Watching for Dolphins (1983), winner of the Alice Hunt Bartlett Award, Selected Poems (1991), Caspar Hauser (1994), The Pelt of Wasps (1998) and Something for the Ghosts (2002). His translations include Friedrich Hölderlin's Selected Poems (1990, revised 1996), winner of the European Poetry Translation Prize. He is currently working on a translation of Goethe's Faust for Penguin Classics, Part 1 of which was published in 2004. His novel Davies (1985) won the Southern Arts Literature Prize and his non-fiction book, Early Greek Travellers and the Hellenic Ideal (1984), won the 1986 Runciman Award. He is also co-editor of the literary journal Modern Poetry in Translation, and author of the collection of short stories, Under the Dam (2005).David Constantine lives in Oxford. His Collected Poems was published in 2004. His latest books are the collection of poetry, Nine Fathom Deep (2009) and a second short story collection, The Shieling (2009). In 2010, The Shieling was shortlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and his short story, 'Tea at the Midland', won the BBC National Short Story Award. In 2013 his series of short polemical monographs The Literary Agenda was published, about the importance of literature and of reading in the wider world and the state of literary education inside schools and universities.
He lives in Oxford with his wife Helen, and has two children and six grandchildren.
With a writing career that spans some 30 years including works of criticism, much translation, short fiction, a novel and ten substantial collections of poetry, David Constantine is undoubtedly a prolific writer.
When compared with his poetic contemporaries, however – a generation that includes the likes of Seamus Heaney, David Harsent and George Szirtes – he has received relatively little recognition, despite having made a marked contribution to modern British and Irish poetry. This may have something to do with that fact that, as Stephen Knight has suggested in the Times Literary Supplement, Constantine has largely remained ‘absent from fashionable movements and coteries’. Though humane, occasionally elegiac and at times, vividly sensual, then, his poetry frequently addresses perennial and contemporary themes obliquely in its novel use of classical myth and biblical tales, a tendency that has encouraged critics to compare his work to that of Robert Graves, Henry James, and even to that most canonical work of world literature, Dante’s Divine Comedy. Constantine’s is certainly an unusual style when contrasted with much contemporary poetry: intense, atmospheric and, on occasion, transcendentally spiritual without being overtly religious, his work can even appear Blakean, a comparison that seems extravagant until one considers Constantine’s recurrent focus on the tensions between innocence and experience, or the fleeting angels that illuminate many of his poems, most notably in the collection The Pelt of Wasps (1998), where ‘angels blessing [and] announcing [are] / Earthly, pleased, lifted, and showing a pale palm’.
Constantine’s debut collection, A Brightness to Cast Shadows (1980), is memorable for mixing intimacy and candid emotion in love poems which are also full of bleak, chilling and often eerie imagery. ‘The clock pecks everything to the bone’, states the poet in ‘As our bloods separate’, ‘wind enters through the broken eyes / Of houses and through their wide mouths / And scatters the ashes from the hearth. // Sleep. Do not let go my hand’. Several of the book’s poems also address the limitations of relationships; a sort of lingering, solipsistic anxiety that Constantine illuminatingly figures in Hellish surroundings. In ‘The Damned’, for instance, lovers are ‘Like two dead trees’ branches / [that] sound the skull with a long finger, / Their speech a sort of trepanning’, while in ‘All wraiths in Hell are single’, ghosts ‘hear one calling after love into the black / But cannot answer and cannot come back’.
This dark, philosophical intensity and often uncanny beauty continues to flourish in Watching for Dolphins (1983), perhaps Constantine’s most widely admired volume and winner of the Poetry Society’s Alice Hunt Bartlett Award. The book’s title poem is a simply told yet remarkably subtle tale of passengers on a boat to Piraeus waiting to see dolphins, ‘all want[ing] epiphany / […] implor[ing] the sea […] // [for] smiling, snub-nosed, domed like satyrs’. But instead of the dolphins appearing, the passengers are left ‘among the great tankers, under their chains / In black water’, their ‘eyes cast down’ as if registering a certain numbness, returning to their ordinary lives. A contemporary master in conjuring these moments of subtle, collective emotion, this skill in fact places Constantine’s work as close to his more obvious European influences as to the likes of Sean O’Brien and Peter Reading, despite their differing styles and approaches.
With the poems from Madder (1987) and the previously uncollected work featured in his Selected Poems (1991), Constantine’s use of biblical narrative and allusion is at its most manifest. This ranges from the powerful, sexual imagery of ‘Adam confesses an infidelity to Eve’, to the ostensibly ordinary yet almost magical and fantastical scenes of ‘The Vicar’s Firework Show’, the sort of poem that no doubt prompted Sean O’Brien to describe Constantine’s work in Poetry Review as ‘uncanny in its blend of the recognisably human and apparently Other’. Even ‘Local Historian’, an otherwise ordinary portrayal of a dozing researcher, ‘book on his chest, his finger trapped in its pages’, harbours a dark, brooding sense of isolation and the almost unreal world beyond: ‘All of Cornwall, slipped from his lease / Towards home, // […] the sea making a din, the cypresses overwhelming’. It is this ability to energise and heighten our sense of the everyday that, though occasionally excessive, ensures the value and captivating quality of Constantine’s poetry.
A substantial book-length sequence of poems, Caspar Hauser, appeared in 1994. It adopts the life of the infamous 19th-century German foundling (who mysteriously appeared on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828, able only to utter a single sentence), in order to explore the implications of a life without language; how the people ‘inched, already aghast / At all the questions he would make them ask’. Written in occasionally rhymed tercets with a consequently dynamic musicality and subtle rhythmical structure, the poem’s formal restraint ensures that its cantos make for an engaging and well-turned narrative, no easy feat in what is essentially a verse-novel. And while Constantine has always relished the paradoxically liberating qualities of traditional forms (in many of the poems from Watching for Dolphins in particular, alternate rhymes, couplets and varyingly complex rhyme schemes abound), the volumes that followed Caspar Hauser – A Pelt of Wasps (1998) and Something for the Ghosts (2002) – showcase his inventive use of both rhyme and syntax in earnest. The solemn yet buoyant spiritual musings of the latter book’s title poem, for instance, are couched as a sort of prayer for spectres of all kinds:
‘Poor gibbering ghosts, when they have done
Their best with bits of sound to shape someone
They knew or thought they knew or wished they had
It never amounts to anything more than this
Ghost of a mouth with questions in such as
Who were you and who did you think I was?’
This style is aptly suited to Constantine’s continued interest in dialectical states – body and spirit, light and darkness, being and nothingness, dreams and the waking world – allowing for a cerebral fluidity that also affords natural yet often surprising shifts in focus. In the selection of new work that closes his considerable Collected Poems (2004), pieces such as ‘Water’ and ‘Simile’ in particular utilise this rhythmical, free verse approach, making for both challenging and pleasurable reading. In fact, it is a technique which Constantine has also adapted to impressive use in his prose writings, the precise description and grand metaphors of Under the Dam (2005), a collection of short stories, garnering praise from A.S. Byatt in The Guardian for the ‘startling quality of the writing […] every sentence [being] both unpredictable and exactly what it should be’. Despite his poetry’s occasionally unusual flavour and perhaps unfashionable subject matters, then, Constantine is a writer deserving of greater recognition, whose deeply questioning and illuminating work is ultimately, as Elizabeth Lowry once described it, ‘an uneasy blend of the exquisite and the everyday’.
Ben Wilkinson, 2009