I wrote ‘If I could write like Tolstoy’ when I was reading War and Peace, when the world of the book was all around me, so the yearning of the poem, the thing it is reaching out to, is the book. I wanted to write a hymn to Tolstoy, to his range, to all the different things he could make me see. You’d expect that the problem with that would be a feeling of inadequacy: that the poem would be too submissive in the face of such amazing prose. But what surprised and delighted me then was the easy way the poem bypassed that whole question. I think I was lucky with the opening move because as soon as I’d made it, I knew the poem had struck the right note. I knew what kind of moves it was going to make, what sort of repetitions it called for. There is something liberating about the “If” in the title and the “perhaps” that comes before the hoof marks in the mud. Both words mark places where the chutzpah crept in, where the poem declared its own space – a place where it was free to hover and float around the edges of the book, but also to zoom in on its centre. I think that is why the voice that speaks in the poem has an ease and naturalness to it, because it sort of knows it can go anywhere.
I think I like the restraint of the poem, especially at the end, but I’m not sure. Sometimes it feels like a kind of cowardice, a lack of nerve. I had wanted the final move to be the most rapturous bit of the poem, the place where my worship at the altar of Tolstoy was at its strongest. But when I saw the words running into more couplets across the page, I kept cutting them back until all I was left with was “a dead man come back to life” and a moon turning some of the trees silver.
Most of the time I think I was right.