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‘Philosophy undermined my atheism’

Every poet is a war poet. Speaking at this month’s Hay Festival, Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez recalled one of Hemingway’s countless boxing analogies: “I wouldn’t fight Dr Tolstoy in a 20-round bout… But I could take him on for six and he would never hit me and [I] would knock the s— out of him.”

Faced with a similar scenario in his latest project, Michael Symmons Roberts is more docile, but just as self-assured. Symmons Roberts is taking on Mozart, writing the libretto for his unfinished opera Zaide, and feels no compunction to defer to him, or the list of lyric poets who preface him: “If they’re all looking over your shoulder when you write you would never pen a line,” he says: “it’s a frightening group – Thomas [Edward], Tennyson, John Donne, Milton. In that sense, there is hubris in all writing.”

When we meet off a scruffy Whitechapel thoroughfare, Symmons Roberts, the trumpeted winner of the Whitbread Poetry Prize and a range of other awards, makes no immediate impression. He is keen to find out about me, in a perfunctory teacher-like way – he is Professor of Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University – in his teacher-like rumpled pinstripe jacket and meagre orange beard. When asked about himself, he fixes his glaucous blue eyes into the middle distance, and the teacher disappears to reveal the poet.

Symmons Roberts is in many respects a literal war poet. His last two books of poetry, Corpus and The Half Healed, are meticulous, sensual collections that are often placed in zones of conflict, be they trench-set shell falls on the western front or Jacob fighting the Angel in a poem called “Choreography”.

The poet comes from the industrial north-west, living in Preston, “England’s most Catholic city”, as a child, but unlike the more quotidian grittiness of some of his fellow northerner Simon Armitage, has a more whole-hearted and spiritual angle.

A convert to Catholicism, he joined the hallowed group of modern poet translators of the greats two years ago, when translating the verses for Schubert’s “Winterreise”. He says that for this latest project he took tips from the founder of the confessional poetry movement, Robert Lowell.

“This is a huge debate – whether you can translate poetry, and how you should translate poetry. Like many of my contemporary poets I follow Lowell’s line. In a book called Imitations he said that what he tried to do was to capture the spirit and tone and voice of these original poems, not to do a faithful academic translation. If I do that it will fall dead as a piece of English poetry. Effectively he is saying that these are versions. I’ve taken liberties where I’ve needed to take liberties.”

At the age of 10 Symmons Roberts remembers an idea coming to him for a poem as he was trying to get to sleep at his parents’ home in Preston. He ran downstairs and breathlessly told his mother about it, for her to dutifully write it down on the kitchen table. Becoming a poet was never a struggle in his youth.

“I was at quite an experimental state primary school where we were allowed to wander around and pursue our interests. They spotted fairly early on that I was into poetry, so the teachers got me to write one every week and read it in assembly. From the age of about five I thought ‘I’m the school poet – this is what I do!’.” And with that a miraculously preserved primary school grin flashes out through his serious façade.

Symmons Roberts was born the son of an industrial salesman and a housewife, neither of whom went to university, but who were highly supportive of the idea that he could have a career in writing. The family was passively secular, but he soon developed a concerted atheism in his teens, which, when he gained a place at Oxford, led him to change his course to Theology and Philosophy, and to change his college to a Christian one, purely so he could talk believers out of their faith. And yet: “As university went on I got deeply into philosophy, and the philosophy totally undermined my atheism, by making me realise that there is no overarching objectivity, no Dawkinsian bedrock of common sense if you strip everything away.

“I realised that atheism was just as culturally conditioned as being a Catholic. The Oxford way of teaching it was the western analytical tradition of deconstructing arguments, so for a naïvely dogmatic young atheist I was ripe to have the rug pulled from under me.

“I made the assumptions that people still have that atheism is exactly the same as ‘common sense’ or objectivity. I’m not saying that in psychological terms we can’t be objective, I just mean that there is no framework of thought that can be completely objective. I have exactly the same problem with unquestioning religious dogmatism.”

He is aware of the fact that, as a poet, “the last acceptable prejudice” against religion can be particularly obstructive. The label “a religious poet in a secular age”, as fellow Whitbread-winner Jeannette Winterson called him, could deter some younger readers. I suggest that he is not as accessible as more pop culture poets like Armitage.

“There’s a whole range of poetry being written,” he says: “and the debate about accessibility and inaccessibility is a complex one. One of the greatest living poets, Geoffrey Hill, said, when asked why his poetry was difficult, replied: ‘My poetry is difficult because we are difficult.’ We are not simple beings – we all know that from the network of our relationships with the world and each other.

“I don’t include consciously-inserted spiritual ideas in my verse. If you start a poem with an idea the poem either risks falling flat, or just becoming instrumental as a way of illustrating it through fancy language. Poems aren’t that: you discover what it is you’re trying to say through trying to say it. In that sense poetry is a volatile art.”

Whether describing “the scar and camber” of a soldier’s shoulder, the “twisted star” pose of a dead body or “vascular stamens” of a heart on a morgue slab, Symmons Roberts’ recent poetry is rooted in the physical.

“In the book Corpus there is this whole group of poems called ‘Food for Risen Bodies’, which is about imagining what Resurrection might be like. Particularly what we’d eat and smoke and talk about on the first meal of the first night of the next life. I’ve read those countless times, and I think it’s very hard to say that it means more to someone who believes than to someone who doesn’t . You get all kinds of reactions from people to who if you said ‘do you believe in the resurrection of the body’? wouldn’t know what you meant.”

A professor of poetry, he is aware of the culture surrounding his art, and is keen to discuss stylistic trends in poetry, such as the trend for “the tersest, tightest Anglo-Saxon words, the one syllable ones. Some poets are fixated by them. However I enjoy complex Latin-rooted words. I have no objection to multi-syllabic words!”

His latest work, however deals with forgiveness. For his Zaide libretto he has had to approach vernacular dialogue, in the German Singspiel style. His dialogue has been criticized in his 2008 novel Breath, which received some poor reviews. However, here he was not afraid to write the whole libretto in “natural speak”, in avoidance of heightened language. He focuses especially on the dialoguing arias, which features complex inter-stitched singing.

For all of the oblique lyrical spirituality in his work there is the clashing technique: the millimetric adjective, the air-tight, wool-swaddled image, and that child’s forensic perception, the one he never grew out of. Corpus’s corporeality ends with a jewel; as he slowly accumulates references to the sun’s black core, he ends:

Once, a girl stared it out
to spite her mother
and the spiteful sun
gave her a dark print
of its heart in every blink.

Zaide opens at Sadler’s Wells in London on 24 June and then tours to Sheffield, Bath and Buxton.