Interview by Elizabeth MacDonald

You have been a civil servant now for thirty odd years. How do you relate to Yeats’ dictum that there can be either perfection of the life or perfection of the work?

Yeats’s melodies are so memorable that they naturally seduce us into quoting them and lull us into crediting them. But I wonder how much scrutiny the lines you allude to can stand:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.

I believe in those lines as poetry (albeit poetry of a distinctly rhetorical cast) and surrender to them as song; but I wouldn’t exactly look to them for How to Live guidance. The notion that ‘perfection’ can be achieved in either work or life is a faery fantasy; and I’m completely in the Celtic twilight as to why one should be no less than forced to choose between them. Presumably, what Yeats means is that one should aspire to perfection – but, if so, why not aspire to perfection in both work and life, knowing one is doomed to fail in both? Yeats managed to make his soul as he built his oeuvre and he was shrewd enough to realise that the energy (carnal, political, theatrical) he was expending in the life was also energising and informing his work as a poet.

To move from Yeats’s Tower to Dublin Castle, in or about which most of my working life has been spent, is a steep climbdown. Finding myself somehow possessed of a life, and unable to charge anyone else with responsibility for its maintenance and upkeep, I began working in Dublin as an Executive Officer in the Estate Duty Office when I was sixteen. I signed the attendance book at about 9.15 every day and remained under the supervisory eye of my boss until 5.30 when I could return to my nearby bedsitter with its two-bar electric fire and ’smell of steaks in passageways’. Adding ‘the halfpence to the pence’ in this line of business meant totting up the value of the house and lands, goods and chattels of a deceased person, deducting his or her debts and funeral expenses, and calculating the Death Duties owed. The pillared basement of the building, where the old wills and affidavits were stored, was a bureaucratic Valhalla. In Yeats’s file, which I unearthed there, his Norman tower and samurai sword made for very exotic assets in contrast with the lump-sum gratuities and Royal Liver insurance pay-outs typically bequeathed by others. After Death Duties, I moved on promotion to Stamp Duties; and, for most of the last ten years, I have worked in a 5th floor office at Castle House where the International Branch of Customs is located: drafting documents, contributing to policy papers, acting as Irish delegate at EU working group meetings, writing analytical briefings for the ‘high level’ Customs Policy Group, arranging EU Customs training for officers from East Europe, Russia and the former Soviet Republics…

Having been naturally bookish since childhood, a day-job among people who never read a poem from one decade to the next has been salutary and sobering, grounding me in everyday experience and broadening the subject-matter and language available to me. When the Irish Government finally established a Department of Arts and Culture in the 1990s, I was repeatedly encouraged by the Department to enlist in its ranks; but I didn’t budge from the Stamp Duty adjudication office, where I specialised in the intricate provisions relating to company reorganisations and amalgamations. I seem to need a certain contrast – even conflict – between my working life and artistic pursuits. Ideas for poems almost always occur when I am going about my worldly business; my desk at home is where the poems end, not where they begin.

What drove you to write poetry? Who are the poets that have most influenced you?

‘Drove’ is the word! I am very driven when it comes to poetry – a complete obsessive, if the truth be told. I see one film a year at most, find television unbearably literal and listen to music only intermittently (though it can move me deeply because its flooding of my auditory canal is a relative rarity). Apart from poetry, my interests have gravitated towards visual art since I received, as a five-year old artist of the realist school, a merit award in the Caltex (now Texaco) children’s art competition – for a drawing of beet-filled trucks converging on the sugar factory in Thurles, my home town. The shape made on the page is always a crucial consideration in determining whether or not a poem of my own is complete.

Only ’slow’ classes were permitted to study art in the boys’ secondary school in Thurles; and I wasn’t deemed quite slow enough to be an artist. Of the subjects I was allowed to learn, I came to love Latin and English best. I never glimpse a shelf of Loeb Classics in a bookshop without a stinging sense of having missed out on something vital by not having read nearly enough of them; a deficit I would give an arm and a leg – a crus and a bracchium is it? – to make good some day. In that same secondary school, the three decisive Damascus moments in English class were hearing Shakespeare’s ‘When Icicles Hang by the Wall’ being read one morning in a grotty classroom that was well past its demolish-by date; learning Wordsworth’s ‘There Was a Boy…’ by heart and immediately taking his work to heart; seeing a teacher write on a blackboard (as if he were composing the words as the chalk bounced and scraped along): ‘The trees are in their autumn beauty, / The woodland paths are dry…’

Encouragement from my English teachers for writing was non-existent. I expected none and I needed none. However, the headmaster, an enlightened Christian Brother called Peter Guilfoyle, took some interest in my scribbling tendencies and invited me to represent the school in a poetry competition for children judged by Stevie Smith and Brian Patten. More ambiguously, another Brother introduced me, when I was fifteen, to a visiting inspector as ‘a bit of an author’. I avidly entered essay competitions; poems and stories of mine were broadcast on Radio Éireann children’s programmes presented by Terry Wogan and Terry Prone. My best incentive for pithy writing, though, surely came one evening when a delivery truck from Thurles railway station unloaded the three-speed state-of-the-art bicycle I had won for completing the tie-breaker, ‘I’d love to own a brand-new Raleigh Diplomat bicycle because…’.

In your critical writings, you have consistently favoured form over content in a poem. For you, what constitutes the ideal poem?

Just as ‘no foal, no fee’ is a commonplace arrangement in the horse-breeding world, ‘no form, no poem’ is a truism insofar as the breeding of poems is concerned. I love the way form and rhythm (another sine qua non of poetry) can somehow confer a higher destiny and density on even the most workaday words, equipping them to outperform their prose brethren and enabling them to achieve presence and intensity and transcendence, even when the tone and content are downbeat and low-key.

Unfortunately, content – which in many respects is inseparable from form – is being downgraded as the fashion for elliptical and incoherent poetry (the flip-side of cosy accessibility), now rampant in America, increasingly exerts an international hold on poets. How better to disguise the banality of one’s workshopped work than to conceal its shortcomings behind a fig leaf of obscurity or a mask of manic cleverness? Presumably, those poets hope that readers will be simpleminded enough to equate obscurity with profundity, incoherence with experiment and cleverness with wisdom. At least Dylan Thomas at his most maddeningly obscure could still orchestrate his waffly words with a certain magniloquent majesty. I have no difficulty whatsoever with difficulty and am prepared to take my chances with C.D. Wright and Michael Palmer and many another difficult poet, from John Donne to Paul Celan. But wilful obscurity I disdain, not least because it arrogantly assumes rights to so much of the reader’s meagre life-span, demanding absurdly large investments of time for what is usually a negligible or negative return.

One reason why much of the greatest poetry is so uncannily and transparently clear (and I don’t mean facile) is because it is a record of those rare, transfixing moments when some normally opaque corner of existence is unveiled and we are granted a fleeting glimpse into ‘the heart of things’. Poetry draws on depths of emotion and reserves of wisdom that are plumbed by instinctive, almost primitive, means – the opposite of conscious ‘cleverality’. No matter how many sophisticated theories are propounded in support of the view that the one true subject of poetry is the poem itself, I remain completely unconvinced.

After all that preaching against obscurity, it’s time to practice clarity and simply answer your question! I would say the ideal poem is not only one that stands up to multiple readings, but which grows and ramifies with each additional reading. Best of all, it teases and troubles you into either making return visits or learning it by heart. Having lured you into doing so, it seems to have gained imaginative weight every time you renew its acquaintance.

You have said: “To arrogate to yourself some larger role as seer or clairvoyant is to succumb to a deluded megalomania of a kind which is endemic in the literary world.” Is this a reaction to the legacy of Yeats?

I certainly don’t want to be so foolish as to make a poetic punch bag of the great Yeats, the most various and copious of poets and one capable, even on his deathbed, of rising to the terza rima magnificence of ‘Cuchulain Comforted’. But, yes, I suppose the Yeats who – flirting with Madame Blavatsky’s magical ideas – literally believed that the medium was the message, or indeed the bow-tied bard who behaved so theatrically (not just in the Abbey but when treading the floorboards of great Anglo-Irish houses) can occasionally be off-putting. What matters is that the finished poetry, however tortuous or apparently bogus the means by which Yeats produced it, utterly redeemed the shortcomings of the man.

Genuine poetry reminds us how little we truly know; it is a vehicle for discovery, not a conduit for omniscience. While poetry can play an ethical role in society, by restoring trust in words, the idea of the poet as the sole spokesperson on whom people can count when propaganda and ideology proliferate comes down in the end to a handful of aureate names. Even the most revered, such as Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak, had their wavering moments – as did poets of Nobel status like George Seferis from Greece and Wislawa Szymborska from Poland when tested in later times. For every Mandelstam or Milosz, countless others in East Europe were prepared to cash in their truth-coupons for a quiet life, a holiday dacha and a well-appointed apartment – and who can say what any of us might have done in the same circumstances? Realistically speaking, I’m afraid Parnassus and idealism can claim far less influence than Hollywood and consumerism on the fall of the Berlin Wall; some of the best-known Russian poets of our time were particularly shifty, pretending to challenge the Party line, while in reality their lines seemed ghost-written by the Party.

Because poets can feel inert and ineffectual and neglected, they are often dangerously tempted to seize any modicum of power within their grasp and to wield it neither too wisely nor too well. Many major twentieth-century poets became apologists for – rather than antagonists of – odious ideologies of the left or right. So much for the wisdom of poets. At the same time, poetry cannot pretend to be innocent of politics and must be able to register the political tremors which impact on everyday life, whether these bring down the house or merely rattle the crockery. The subtlety of the political stance adopted by Northern Irish poets during the house-rupturing divisions of the Troubles was exemplary. Resisting the pressure to take sides in a small community and deploying the forces of poetical imagination rather than political ideology, they undoubtedly enhanced the moral standing of poetry. In a different context, a Southern Irish one, the highly original way in which Thomas McCarthy uses party politics both as dramatic subject and as multiple metaphor definitely has my vote also.

Your poetry alternates lyricism and bleakness. There are also instances where it is permeated by the desire to give a voice to the language of law and commerce. Could this represent a narrowing of the gap between another and more pervasive polarisation: that between the artistic and the scientific? The gap separating parallel views of the cosmos and the universe? I’m thinking, for example, of “Missing God”.

Some poets work wonders within very narrow confines. Having discovered their métier, they refine and perfect their methods. A random list of such poets – all of them variously gifted – would include Louise Bogan, A.E. Housman, Emily Dickinson, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Stevie Smith and Edward Thomas. My own personal affinity is with writing that is not associated with any single theme or tone, form or formula. I like to run the gamut from the sensuous and celebratory to the sardonic and scathing – with as many options as possible kept open in between: poem or anti-poem, pithy lyric or extended sequence; the language of bureaucracy (of which I am a native speaker) or a more heightened idiolect (the idea that every poem must be written in the vernacular is as wrong-headed as the notion that a kind of elocuted accent is a necessary component of lyricism).

A fusion of the scientific and the imaginative is something many poets would like to achieve; but how much do the majority of us know about science – other than what can be half-grasped from scanning Scientific American or sitting through some TV documentary busy with special effects? My fascination with science is considerable, my command of its elements negligible. A Weetabix Map of the Solar System orbited above my boyhood bed – the colourful planets were lined up for all the world like a celestial game of marbles; and I pored over material about Mars and the solar system in my weekly copy of Look & Learn. One thing I learned from looking at the work of poets like Ronald Duncan and Hugh MacDiarmid is that poems which are force-fed with scientific data are about as digestible as a Weetabix moon rock.

Although our age is a scientific one, my upbringing in the Ireland of the 1950s and 1960s was, above all, intensely Catholic. It is second nature to me therefore to substitute theological notions of eternity for scientific ideas of infinity and to mediate cosmic quandaries through Biblical metaphor and parable as much as through scientific hypothesis and formula. I also feel that the more evidence science accumulates, the more the plot thickens. If the world can be said to have begun, how and why did it do so, and what preceded the Big Bang? Why, as scientists themselves ask, is there something rather than nothing? I doubt if definitive answers to those questions will ever be found, fascinating and perilous though the search will be.

Your poetry is one of yearning and loss. The frame over which this poetic canvas is stretched seems to be time. How important for you is man’s relationship with time?

That Renaissance man we know as William Shakespeare was, of course, one of the great poets of time and returned obsessively to the notion of poetry as preservative, something that will still blossom freshly when the bloom has faded from the human cheeks that inspired it. But however frequently and brilliantly the subject of time may have been addressed by our greatest predecessors, it remains an inexhaustible preoccupation for many of us. Indeed, the speeded-up world of e-mail, text messages and UPS which we now inhabit gives us a new perspective on a theme that is timeless.

By the way, I ought to own up to an eccentric habit of mine, prevalent in the years when I was about twelve or thirteen (it’s alluded to in ‘Tempus Fugit’, a poem in my collection Long Story Short). Whether through mere boredom in class or some unaccountable lurch into cub mysticism, I would occasionally look at the old pendulum clock on the schoolroom wall and note down the precise time on a piece of paper. Staring at this ‘data’ later, I tritely pondered the fact that the time I had recorded was gone for ever: I am now X minutes older than I was then, it will never ever again be that time on this day….

On poetry, you have written: “Today’s preference is for poetry that hovers between the oblique and the obscure, that is knowing but not revealing, that hints at significance without doing anything as old-fashioned as delivering any.” This is certainly true of the opulent, Postmodern West. You greatly admire East European poets such as Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wislawa Szymborska, and Miroslav Holub. What have you found in their poetry that delights you?

My copy of Miroslav Holub’s Selected Poems was bought in 1971, when I was seventeen. The source of this Penguin paperback was the Eblana Bookshop in Dublin, then a rich repository of books about show-jumping (in which I had a passing interest) and poetry (the ascendant Pegasus in my life). Very very few books in my adult existence have overwhelmed and excited me to the extent that this Czech book in translation did: it wooed and won me permanently to poetry, till death do us part. Furthermore, it made me simultaneously sympathetic to poetry in translation (though I am only too well aware of the drawbacks and distortions involved) and eager to explore Central and East European poetry. To question Holub’s political outlook – to ask whether or not this medical doctor and immunologist was a dissident – never occurred to me at the time. I was simply gravitating towards a playful voice which I instinctively trusted: witty, sceptical, exploring life-and-death issues with the lightest of poetry scalpels and a devastatingly ironic bedside manner. My chance discovery of Holub led me to other laconic-ironic East European poets, notably Tadeusz Rózewicz and Zbigniew Herbert, as well as Bertolt Brecht and Reiner Kunze from Germany. They gave me courage to take my first tentative steps down the unpaved path of ‘anti-poetry’.

Of living poets whose work I know only in translation, much the most important for me are Wislawa Szymborska – at once slyly wry and deeply wise – and especially Czeslaw Milosz. Although I had read and reviewed Milosz for years – admiring his fusion of the spiritual and the political, the classical and the romantic, the theological and the erotic, the traditional and the experimental – it was his late, long-range, mellow collections Provinces and Facing the River that provided me with the key to this mesmerising genius who ‘contains multitudes’. No poet conveys more poignantly what it means for time to pass and for people to pass away and be forgotten. Doubtless his desperate need to recollect friends and acquaintances is related to his pain at having watched the wartime dead and exterminated become mere statistics in history books.

For reasons not unconnected, I presume, with his own miraculous survival through war and exile as man and artist, Milosz has a fixation on the notion that the poet must give praise; he is stone deaf to the celebratory note which Philip Larkin secretes like a small yes even within his bleakest poems (and could it be that Milosz is deaf to the elegiac note piercing his own eulogies?). Poets – if they are to be at all capable of bearing the full burden of truth about the world – must accept that many things about life demand rueful lamentation more than smug celebration. It is liberating, even consoling, to depict things as they are; to rinse the world in rose water before you write is to bear false witness. Milosz’s poems know this, even when their author seems in denial.

The role of metaphor seems central to your poetry, which is permeated by images intensified by unusual associations. Very often, this is filtered by a subtle, melancholy irony. How do you relate to the great Metaphysical poets?

Image by association is exactly right. Whenever I read a poet who is strong on imagery, my eyes stand to attention: further evidence of my visual art bias, no doubt, and another reason for my affinity with Holub (an imagistic genius). As for the Metaphysicals, I’d read little else if I were to – as we say at work – prioritise.

And to finish off, if you had to choose three works of art – a work of literature, a painting or sculpture, and a piece of music – what would they be?

At a time in the 1990s when I specialised in Customs ‘restrictions and prohibitions’, I was despatched to an EU seminar in Seville for training on how to prevent smuggling of endangered creatures and plants. On the eve of the seminar, I visited the Fine Arts Museum where – completely unprepared for the impact Zurbarán’s paintings would make – the stiffly starched folds of the white Carthusian habits and the stillness of the still-life elements in his ‘Saint Hugo in the Refectory’ overwhelmed me. I knew I stood in the presence of a great master, the equal of Velázquez, far superior to Murillo. Some years ago, when Waterstone’s bookshop remained open for 24 hours and offered substantial discounts for anyone insane or insomniac enough to make a purchase in the early hours, I triumphantly acquired – under cover of darkness, it seemed – a book of Zurbarán reproductions at approximately 2.20 a.m. Only when I subsequently re-read Louis MacNeice’s grossly underrated autobiography, The Strings Are False, did I recall that he too had passed through the Fine Arts Museum of Seville, proclaiming Zurbarán a ‘revelation’ (definitely the mot juste).

Music is essential to me only in the small hours, when the business of the day is completed. The neighbouring houses have dimmed or darkened. Cars are reunited with their driveways. There is an illusion of being allowed backstage in the world, of having the planet to oneself. The late news has been told and the future weather has been foretold. All my books and papers are tidied away (a daily ritual I practise religiously). Everything seems to acquire a simplicity and clarity and agreeable melancholy. Now, I find that I am lingering over some rueful string quintet, or Alfred Brendel is drip-feeding the slow movement of a piano sonata. So let some Schubert lead me into a new day. It is 2.20 a.m., the Zurbarán hour, and the house is as hushed as a Carthusian chapel…

A work of literature? Where could I possibly begin – unless perhaps at the beginning:

My tidings for you: the stag bells,
Winter snows, summer is gone.
Wind high and cold, low the sun,
Short his course, sea running high.
Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone –
The wild-goose has raised his wonted cry.
Cold has caught the wings of birds;
Season of ice – these are my tidings.

[Translated from the anonymous 9th century Irish by Kuno Meyer]

This interview was conducted by e-mail in February 2004.

Elizabeth MacDonald teaches English at Pisa University. She completed the M.Phil. in Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin and is working on a novel.

Interview published in Poetry Ireland Review, December 2004.

Interview by Michael Garvey

How did you come into poetry and how did you come to poetry?

I don’t really think you come to poetry; poetry comes to you. I would say that I knew virtually from the age of three – which was the age at which I started reading – that I wanted to write something or other. Of course, when you are a child, children’s books are what you want to write. But, very quickly, I was responding to poetry more than to anything. In school, when everyone else was hiding the book underneath the desk, if we were supposed to have learned a poem by heart, I was hoping I would be asked to recite. Not because I was some kind of goody-good, but for the pure pleasure of having those wonderful words in my mouth and being able to declaim them.

What I recall from school is a physical reaction to language. The first glimpse of Shakespeare we were offered was

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the Shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail….

I almost fainted as I listened to this. I can also remember a class in which a teacher walked into the room and, without uttering a word, started to chalk on the blackboard

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry….

This – the words, not the chalk! – brought me out in goosebumps and I suppose I gradually wanted to see if I could induce goosebumps of my own making. But I have remained more interested in other people’s poems than my own, a fascination which I put to use by writing a lot of criticism.

For most people, words are a currency, a little like money. But, for you, do the actual tokens have values in themselves?

What we call inspiration in poetry is usually a visitation of words and rhythms rather than ideas. I find that if I have the right phrase in my head, nothing will stop me; but if I don’t, nothing will start me. I have never taken or given a poetry workshop – poetry, for me, is a private and spontaneous pursuit, not one which is communal or induced. When I was growing up in Thurles, where the firemen were part-timers, they would have to drop whatever they were working at if the fire siren sounded. Poetry is something like that – if the siren goes off, you have to interrupt whatever you are doing and respond to the call by jotting the phrase down. But the alarm can be a false one, the call may be a hoax. Poets who are anxious about their output see infernos where there are not even chimney fires. They clutter poetry publications in the same way that people with minor ailments are accused of crowding the casualty wards of hospitals.

How do you draw people to poetry, how do you move people to be open to it? How do you get people to try it?

I’m not in the least bit proselytising about the art; I have nothing of the salesman in me when it comes to poetry. I am particularly sceptical about the idea of trying to offer people so-called accessible poems as a lure. I don’t believe in accessible poems, I only believe in good poems. I think it was Anne Sexton – a second-rate American poet – who said that to be second-rate in poetry was to be nowhere at all.

I would say that poetry for most people is like the Christmas tree that is kept in the attic and is taken down in its appropriate season. And I suppose the season for poetry is the season of love or the season of death – those times when people look to poetry for sustenance. And maybe that’s one of the fundamental roles of the art. The people I work with have all kinds of interests – they may be bird watchers or soccer fans or chess players; they don’t try to convert me to chess and I don’t try to convert them to poetry. What people want from me at the office is the answer to crossword clues, help with completing tie-breakers for competitions (’I love Natural Gas because…’), things which are regarded as turning my alleged word-skills to practical use.

If I were exposing people to poetry, I’d like them to be exposed to the best poems ever written, even if they can’t make sense of them immediately. The sheer power of a great poem is enough to guarantee that it will ultimately make itself felt if the reader – however uninitiated in the art – is in a receptive mood. But I don’t assume – just because I was receptive to poetry at an early age, just because it brought me out in goosebumps – that poetry is going to bring everyone out in goosebumps rather than yawns.

You have a full-time day-job, as one would describe it. How do you manage to combine this with your creative work?

I tend to think of poetry as a privileged space one enters from time to time. This may be wishful thinking, but I feel that the more pressured the space, the more intense the response you get when you actually sit down to write there. I have very little time left for writing when the working and commuting and corresponding and lawn-cutting and the rest of it are over. But, much as I would love to be allowed to stay home in the ivory tower, it’s probably a healthy thing to be shoved out into the grit and grime of the world. You can expand the scope and the vocabulary of poetry by bringing to it your long-term experience of worlds and words with which poets are rarely acquainted at first-hand.

Like all except the big names, I can lay claim to no more than a marginal poetry constituency. Not enjoying the poetry equivalent of a safe parliamentary seat, I have no option but to earn my living in some alternative way. I won’t deny that it can be more than a little disconcerting sometimes to think of others out there having lots of time to sweat over hot poems while you are busily manufacturing lifeless prose to your boss’s specifications…. Still, you do learn from the day-job how to work under pressure and how to organise yourself fairly efficiently, so you are equipped to some degree at least to offset the obvious disadvantages of your situation.

It is only since ‘The Bottom Line’ that I have been regarded as an office poet and I’m disinclined to fulfil the pigeon-holing expectations which go with this – of writing lots more poetry on the same theme, in particular. ‘The Bottom Line’ took me completely by surprise, most of it coming in an effortless surge over a very short period. I certainly hadn’t deliberately set out to write a long poem on the office world – if anything, I had assumed that I was insufficiently distant from the material for this to be possible.

There is another linguistic level at which my life and my language intersect, namely in the production of the memos and so on that are a fundamental part of my job. Official language sets out to be formal and respectful, but it is old-fashioned to my ear, always at least a generation behind the living language of the time. Editors almost never change a word in the essays or reviews that I write for them. The greatest editorial intervention I experience is in connection with my official work, where my superiors – with whom I get on extremely well, incidentally – re-write memos to ensure that they conform to the standard official mode.

Is this because of their particular needs or because they don’t share your discrimination regarding language?

Official language has specific expectations going with it: that it will be couched in a certain tone and will restrict itself to a certain vocabulary. So-called creative language, on the other hand, can be as inventive, as playful, as subversive, as it likes. Wallace Stevens, the great office poet, looked on poetry as ‘an unofficial view of being’; if, like me, the poet is a public official at work, then he makes the shift to being a private unofficial at home – a shift which adds considerably to the relish with which one settles down to write poems and reviews.

Mention of Wallace Stevens reminds me to say that there are any number of precedents for poets working in non-academic jobs. Thomas Kinsella and Padraic Fallon were civil servants; outside of Ireland, you find T.S. Eliot (a banker and publisher), Roy Fuller (a solicitor), R.S. Thomas (a clergyman), William Carlos Williams (a pediatrician), Philip Larkin (who was a librarian) and many others…. The best English-language poets of the century have, as often as not, been worker-poets – which, alas, is not to say that all worker-poets are good poets!

Can you tell me about the background to ‘The Bottom Line’?

‘The Bottom Line’ is a 550-line poem about the worlds of business, bureaucracy, offices, that kind of thing. From years of working in offices where I came into close contact with the business community – but also from having friends in business and from reading the financial press – I became both intrigued and repelled by the language of commerce. That language can be viewed as ugly and transitory but it is inventive and creative too, an Adam capable of naming the contemporary beasts (which now happen to be digital and mechanical). Business is transacted in a world of measurables – output, pre-tax profits, stock exchange indices – whereas poetry likes to think of itself as dealing in immeasurables and infinities.

To speak of ‘The Bottom Line’ as if it had been planned or premeditated in some way would be dishonest, because – as I said earlier – there was nothing conscious or foreseen about it. Certain phrases were beating about in my head and the more I wrote them down, the more new ones followed on their heels. Because a single take on the business world would not be anything like sufficient to do justice to it – or indeed to my own attitude to it – the poem is cubist in construction and written from a multiplicity of perspectives. The obvious poetic response to adopt to business would have been a hostile one or a satirical one. That seemed too easy to me; I also wanted to be sympathetic to this world, to recognise that many of its inhabitants may be unfulfilled, pursuing careers that are not their true calling, grappling with private fears and failures and responsibilities. I hoped to be true to that aspect of it no less than the more critical or satirical side. I didn’t want a black and white poem – maybe, in the context, the black and red of credit and debit would be more appropriate colours to choose!

Is there any element of autobiographical material in your poetry?

Rather than being directly autobiographical, I often distance myself from material to which I feel close by writing in an impersonal way or, for that matter, by adopting a persona. There is nothing at all wrong with being autobiographical unless it spills over into confessionalism, in which case readers may confuse sensationalism in the life with merit in the work. Behaving egotistically is something poets are already far too skilled at; they shouldn’t be encouraged to capitalise on this through exhibitionist writing.

Can I ask you about the role of the poet in society? Is the poet any way significantly more responsible in this regard than the average citizen?

My belief is that if you look after the language, then the politics will look after itself. If you take the care and trouble to represent things precisely as you perceive them, literally and imaginatively, you will have discharged any obligation to society which you may have. To arrogate to yourself some larger role as seer or clairvoyant is to succumb to a deluded megalomania of a kind which is endemic in the literary world.

Since words are spoken by everyone, the custody of language is a sufficient responsibility in itself for a poet. To inscribe in language some hitherto unexpressed area of experience – to fill in some blank corner of the human canvas – is worthwhile; to speak the small truths that feed into the bigger Truth. Also, the aspiration of poetry is always towards the creation of something permanent in language: in our era of the disposable, the ephemeral, this is counter-cultural – as, indeed, is the fact that genuine poetry transcends the blinkered vision of the journalistic present; it inhabits the present, but it is also very much in dialogue with the inherited forms and the great voices of the past.

What role does subject-matter play in poetry?

Poetry, when it is reviewed, is normally discussed on the basis of its subject-matter, because that is the most tangible part of the work. More important than what is being said is how it is being said – including the sub-music of the poem, its undercurrent, its pitch, its tone. These are the intangibles really, rather like the whistle which only a certain species of animal can hear. But poetry itself teaches you how to hear these sounds and you won’t have ventured many lines into a poem before you know whether its author is capable of operating in the multi-level way which mastery of the art demands. However tongue-in-cheek he may have intended to be, I rather agree with Duncan Bush who said that – similar to the manner in which a trained musician can tell, by merely looking at a score, whether it is any good or not – a trained poet can judge a poem’s worth by looking at it (even before actually reading it). Texture is always one of the first attributes to reveal itself.

If poems could be tracked by an ECG or a lie detector, you could quickly pick out the dodgy bits, the dishonest bits, the parts where the graph wavers because the poet effectively inserts stage directions such as Pause for laughter or Please applaud or whatever. I’m all for laughter in poetry, but it should be evoked by something which is intrinsic, organic, to the poem – not something which is tacked on with a view to manipulating an audience reaction. The problem with humour, though, is that people approach poetry with such serious expectations that they may miss the humour on the page if it’s not laid on fairly heavily. Insofar as my poems are humorous, it tends to be in a black or deadpan way; people often won’t permit themselves to believe that you could possibly be whimsical about a sombre subject like death unless your intention is conveyed pretty unambiguously at a poetry reading.

Does your fascination with language arise from its sound and structure or with syntax – or a composite of these things?

Poetry is a loyalty to language before it’s a loyalty to anything else. If you are a journalist, for instance, you may be expected to sensationalise a story. If you are an advertiser or auctioneer, you may be expected to whip up language in certain ways. There are, of course, poets too who distort the language but they are lesser poets for doing so; indeed, they are not, properly speaking, poets at all.

If you are writing poetry, you are involved in according every word exactly the weight it should have – perhaps the exact weight it was given by the anonymous person whose impulse first brought the word into being. You are honouring the people whose need was great enough to come up with words like ‘thirst’ and ‘trust’ and ‘pain’ and ‘yearn’. A true poem would be like a house that never needed to be maintained, in which the paper never peeled and the paint never faded. But that kind of poem – in which every word emits a pristine glow – would be a verbal miracle. Most of the poems we read and write are temporary dwellings, easily demolished because of poor structural engineering or sub-standard materials. One of the most fascinating and alluring aspects of poetry is precisely the fact that a poem is an almost impossible thing to write.

Paradoxically, and despite all I have said about language, poetry – at its heart – is silence. It is an art of words but it seems as if its deepest power lies in the ability to take you right to the point at which words fail and silence begins – the silence of awe, the silence of the irrational, the silence of the universe…. You look out for a moment on an infinite horizon to confront the essence of what it’s like to be a solitary human being on a strange, infinitesimally small planet in the universe.

[Edited version of an interview made for broadcast on RTE Television’s Undercover]
Irish Literary Supplement (Fall 1998)

Interview by Mark Thwaite

You say [in Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams] that what you recall from school about poetry is a physical reaction to language. Is that still the case now? Is that the first way that you judge the success of a poem?

In Emily Dickinson’s much-cited touchstone for a poem, she feels “physically as if the top of my head were taken off”. A.E. Housman applies a bristling skin test to poetry, another famous example of a physical criterion for the efficacy of a poem. Goosebumps and decapitation are not the whole story, though. The physical aspect is the one that’s easiest to be sure about – it registers on your pulse rate, after all, and is the one that’s least embarrassing to talk about. But the deepest reactions to a great poem will – pace Emily Dickinson – actually be over the top.

I know I am in the grip of a true poem when I can hardly bear to read it calmly at first, so all-embracing and far-reaching is its instantaneous effect on me. I realise I am about to meet with psychic turbulence; undergo a vast excitation of mind, soul and body that will turn me outside in. This is not something I can face lightly. I need to adjust and acclimatise – cool down, in short – before I feel capable of responding adequately to the emotional, musical and verbal demands of the poem. I avert my eyes for a while, blink in dazzlement or take a short walk… Robert Frost describes the experience exactly: “The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken a mortal wound. That he will never get over it.”

Does your poetry “descend” or do you work and work at each and every word and line?

“Descend”, in this context, is a word with a lofty rather than lowly air about it. I recoil from it somewhat, lest it seem pretentious or self-aggrandising – as if the poet were party to some gilded angelic annunciation or received tongues of fire like an apostle in an illuminated manuscript. Yet, the word is not to be altogether dismissed or disparaged. Like a lot of people, I am completely passive in my writing of poetry. Unless I sense the rhythms, see the images and hear the words spontaneously, I am helpless. I cannot force my hand; cannot create a poem by wilfully manipulating my pen across the white expanses of the page – it simply has to be prompted. Usually, what is termed “inspiration” means that the ingredients of the poem are gathered for you and you must then concoct a suitable recipe. There are rare and wonderful moments, though, when the entire poem is served in one delicious, steaming hot course by a Muse in the guise of a discreet waitress who knows exactly which of today’s “specials” will perfectly match your appetite. I never try to devise tricks for artificially triggering off a poem: experience has taught me that to do so is a complete waste of time, resulting in an unconvincing forgery. I have no interest in writing any poem I am able to resist – and poetry can manage very well without my fakes and out-takes.

Beckett, I think it was, said something about how as an Irish writer writing in English he was already writing in a foreign language. Do you feel that way? Is their something peculiar about Irish English, its rhythms and language, that you bring to your work?

I speak Irish (Gaelic) passably well and make a point of listening to the Irish language radio station – enduring, in the process, my share of accordion bands, dentally-challenged balladeers and over-eager discussions about the level at which the next Government grant for Irish-speaking districts will be pitched. I’m certainly aware of Irish as an ancestral language ghosting my sensibility in certain ways; but whether or not it is ghost-writing my poems I cannot tell. Having lived in Ireland all my life, I can hardly be anything but Irish – Irish in ways that are properly invisible to me. My inclination, in any event, is to play down my Irishness rather than whip it up. Nothing is more potentially damaging to the Irish writer than buying in to the myth that we have some monopoly on colourful locutions and the so-called “gift of the gab”; too many Irish writers have fallen prey to such delusions.

Any Irish poets (indeed any poets of any nationality) that we should be looking out for?

2005 is the centenary year of Padraic Fallon’s birth. He published only one book of poems in his 69 years of life: that book, appearing under the barest of titles Poems, was actually published just a few months before his death. But his work has certainly not been difficult to find since then. His poetry – a Collected Poems and a selection called A Look in the Mirror – was published in the UK by Carcanet, who recently issued his iridescent radio plays. The Collected Poems is introduced by Seamus Heaney, no less, and A Look in the Mirror by Eavan Boland, one of Fallon’s most loyal and persuasive advocates. Eamon Grennan, Peter Sirr and Neil Corcoran have written excellently about his work; my own case for Fallon appears in my essay collection, Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams. We are all convinced of his importance as a bridge between Yeats and later Irish poets, between Gaelic Ireland and modern Ireland; convinced too that he is an immensely readable and rewarding poet in his own right. Yet, neither in Ireland or anywhere else is Fallon’s work really known.

Canal-bank festivals, radio and TV documentaries, newspaper features and special issues of magazines, commemorative readings in the Gate Theatre in Dublin and the National Concert Hall, not to mention an emerald-green postage stamp, marked the Patrick Kavanagh centenary last year. There are poetry awards in his name, a visitor’s centre at his birthplace, guided coach tours of his heartland, an annual literary festival in his honour… I love Kavanagh’s work and don’t grudge him one handful of his well-deserved applause; but Fallon, his quieter but no less gifted contemporary, deserves a big hand also.

Among living Irish poets, our most underrated is Joe Sheerin, whose tragicomic voice blurts out deep and dark truths. Elves in the Wainscotting (Oxford Poets / Carcanet, 2002) is a droll and troubling masterwork by this Leitrim-born poet who has lived in England for most of his life.

Czeslaw Milosz called Simone Weil and Oscar Milosz “writers in whose school I obediently studied”. Who, in this sense, schooled you?

Bertolt Brecht. The poet rather than the playwright. And, as a non-speaker of German I’m afraid, the translated poet in John Willett’s Poems 1913 – 1956, rather than the unmediated poet in the original German. He constitutes an entire school in himself (unruly pupils included) – the headmaster laconic and lapidary; his teaching assistants ranging from scathing satirists to subtle psalmists.

I have deliberately been a poor student of Bertolt Brecht’s life, knowing I would be totally out of sympathy with his post-war political posturing and his hypocritical behaviour in various spheres. Ours is a fiercely judgmental age in which we are encouraged to think the worst of every writer (if only to make ourselves feel morally superior). With Brecht, I concentrate my time and attention on what is the very best thing about him as a writer: his incontrovertible greatness as a wry, wise, humane poet and consummate craftsman.

What does receiving the American Academy of Arts & Letters E. M. Forster Award mean to you?

The poet C.K. Williams, who judged the 2005 E.M. Forster Award with the playwright John Guare and the novelist Alison Lurie, recently remarked that “A friend of mine once said, ‘The fear of failure is the common cold of the artistic personality.’ Once you win a prize, it puts a dent in that – at least for a few hours!” It was of course an enormous encouragement and surprise to find three distinguished American writers, with whom I had no previous communication of any kind, air mailing me news of an award on behalf of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In fact, the very existence of the Forster Award was news to me – I had no idea what it was or that I was eligible, let alone that I was being seriously considered.

Do you still work for Irish Customs?

You’d have to ask my boss! But, Yes is the answer – though not for much longer. As a result of the decentralisation of my office to my native Tipperary, I am about to be transferred to a new (and, as yet, unspecified) role in Ireland’s labyrinthine Revenue organisation (I have declared a preference for remaining in Dublin and moving to work in the strategy, planning, policy-making areas).

Before Customs, I managed the Stamp Duties adjudication office in Dublin Castle. My first job – at the age of 16 – was in the Death Duties office. Literary people who know of my Customs connection tend to flatteringly invoke names like Chaucer and Melville. Alas, one does not become a Melville any more than one becomes a Bartleby simply by working in a Customs House. Padraic Fallon, by the way, worked for Irish Customs – though, if what I’ve heard is true, “work” might be too strenuous a word with which to burden his role in a sleepy coastal town where ships requiring Customs clearance scarcely ever slipped into the silting harbour.

I have found my day-jobs variously fulfilling and frustrating, educating and enervating. You cannot be sure that one word you have written as a poet is any good; and I have never had the kind of certainty about my writing which would have permitted me to put poetry at the full-time centre of my life. To seek to earn a livelihood from poetry-related activity – to put the Muse out to work – would have been nothing short of hubris for me. Yet one needs time, quiet and concentration to discover what one is capable of as a poet. Having spent over thirty years in busy full-time jobs, I have more recently – thanks to the generosity and encouragement of the Lannan Foundation – been experiencing the luxury of a part-time working routine; achieving at last the perfect balance between life and art, between my Customs desk with its reams of laws, tariffs, regulations and instructions and my poetry desk where the pages are blank, instructions are irrelevant and every new poem is a law unto itself.

What are you working on now? What is coming next?

A UK letterpress, Happy Dragons, is about to produce a chapbook containing my prose-poetry sequence 50 O’Clock; the final version of the poem is – in Webspeak – “still under construction”. I am one of five Irish poets liberally represented in an imminent American-published anthology The Wake Forest Series of Irish Poetry 1 (Wake Forest University Press). My compilation of contemporary quotations about poetry and poets is scheduled for publication in 2006 by Bloodaxe Books (who commissioned it) – my hope is that this book will interest anyone reading, writing or teaching poetry and of course lovers of pithy quotes and quips of all kinds. There’s an Anvil anthology in the offing also. Muse willing, a further collection of my poems may eventually cohere. Other projects are in the pipeline too but I don’t want to, as it were, choke the pipe by spilling too many beans.

How do you write? Longhand, straight onto the computer?

I put all my poetry on the long finger and the long hand: the long finger because I try to let the idea for a poem marinate as long as possible in the juices of the subconscious between the initial impulse and the initial writing; the long hand, because I cling superstitiously to the commonplace notion that there is some stimulative and creative connection between the movement of the hand and the flow of the imagination. Where the computer is very useful is in displaying the architecture of the poem – allowing you to play with alternative forms and test various line-lengths far less laboriously than in the rattling good old days of the Smith Corona with its end-of-line ringtone. My computer superstitions do not extend to critical articles – or to website questionnaires for that matter. I am typing as I speak…

What are you favourite websites?

I haven’t really developed webbed feet or Web fingers to any great extent. I’m a paddler rather than a surfer. But Poetry Daily has been my favourite daily dip – love at first site! – since we clicked together several years ago. Like a good poem, the site contains nothing that is superfluous; yet everything essential is there: essays and poems, news and interviews, broadcasts and lists of new publications. The editing is discreet and discerning, eclectic and selective, a model of its kind. I keep a watchful eye on some other excellent sites, including The Page, Contemporary Poetry Review and Poetry Hut Blog. George Szirtes’s high-energy personal site combines the diary of a distinguished poet and translator with ruminations on art and reflections on life and politics: a fascinating new genre is unscrolling there.

What is your favourite book/who is your favourite writer?

My favourite book – no doubt about it – is The New Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse, edited by Emrys Jones. Luckily, I bought the hardback when it first appeared in 1991 – otherwise it would have disintegrated from use by now. This is the grounding in poetry I missed as a result of having studied Law rather than English at university. To read Elizabethan poets is like being present at poetry’s Big Bang. Was there ever a period when language was more inventive, more improvised, more alive? And I love the zing and zest with which these poets wrestled with poetry in other languages, permanently enriching and influencing English literature in the process.

What book do you wish you had written?

I can’t honestly say I am much given to wishing I had written some book or other. I am more inclined to admire a great work than to envy or covet it. And if I admire it sufficiently, I will want to write about it rather than actually wish to have written it. However, I am sometimes miffed to discover that a poet has beaten me to the publishing post with a poem on a theme I was already exploring. In that sense, there are perhaps occasions when I wish I had written or published something sooner.

Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer?

The obvious: remember there is no one “correct” way of becoming a writer. As somebody who has never in my life been inside a poetry workshop or creative writing class, either as student or tutor, I resist the idea that all aspiring writers need to somehow “qualify” as artists – as if, to follow the hierarchical logic of the creative writing institutions, those with a doctorate in writing could expect ipso facto to write better (or command higher royalties!) than those with a mere master’s degree or none at all. The very quirks and eccentricities which a workshop will probably discourage may in fact be the aspiring writer’s most valuable capital in the longer term. Would-be literary Samsons should be wary of enrolling in a hairdressing school.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I have too many bad memories of overly-long poetry readings to linger any longer at this podium. I’ll tidy away the question marks and thank my host and those of you who came along. Thanks for your company. Drinks, anyone?, July 2005.

Interview by Kieran Owens

Your latest collection of poems, ‘Exemplary Damages’, has just been published by the Anvil Press, whereas your first collection, ‘Kist’, was published by The Dolmen Press 20 years ago. How have you changed as a poet over that period?

The first book had two essential styles: one a very short, crystalline, imagistic style and the other a more discursive style. The style that has won out is the discursive, which surprises me because I am more sympathetic to the former. That is where I feel most at home and I have been trying to make my way back there ever since, though largely failing. There are moments in all the collections when I revert to that style, but it has eluded me to some extent. ‘Kist’ is my least favourite book, but I do still value its approach to writing. It had an underlying notion of poetry as something very concise and almost visual. I love the idea of a poem that you can take in at a single glance.

What do you mean by a discursive style?

When I say discursive I am talking about the rather digressive nature of the subject-matter; also, the language used is those poems is much more conversational and contemporary. It is standard, in thinking and talking about poetry nowadays, to suggest that one should always write in the language of one’s time. I am sympathetic to that idea, to some extent, but I wonder if it doesn’t risk a sort of built-in obsolescence which will date very quickly, with its contemporary modish phrases, brand names and allusions to TV shows. At the same time, language – properly handled – acts as a kind of time capsule. If you look at a piece of old news footage, what is often interesting is not the foreground where the main story features, but the fuzzy background where you notice people’s hair styles, or cars, or clothes, or whatever. If you are using discursive language carefully, and not manipulating it in such a way as to seem self-consciously streetwise or up-to-the-second, it should faithfully preserve the period. It remains interesting because it allows the reader to recreate a sense of what that time was really like. A poem must have a time element, but also a timeless element. It has to be eternal and yet contain a contemporary dimension as well. The objects to which the language refers may be transitory and ephemeral; but underlying them – if the poem is to have any durability – should be something much more lasting, more timeless.

Why do you write poetry?

What I like most about poetry is that it is always doing something more than just using the language to transmit information. The fact that it uses imagery and rhythm so much gives it another dimension altogether. A poem might appear to be about some banal topic, such as walking along a road, but the real poem might lie concealed in its music and rhythm, or in its imagery. The combination of the narrative, musical and imagistic elements of the poem should, ideally, transform it from being simply a poem about something which you could paraphrase into something which is beyond paraphrasing. For me, poetry is probably the most difficult of the arts and the one in which it is most difficult to succeed. It is also one in which I myself normally fail. The stakes are so high, because they amount to nothing less than an aspiration to absolute truth; so there is a constant drive to return again and again to see if you can bring all of these dimensions into some kind of unison, in which you transform the material into something immaterial.

Do you consider the poems that you are writing now to fall within a continuity of concerns, or have you re-evaluated and altered your focus of interest?

Everybody has certain preoccupations that they return to. To be a poet is to almost invariably fail, and perhaps always to fail. You might find that, book after book, not even one poem has achieved what, in your deepest aspirations, you felt that it should achieve. As the critic Helen Vendler says, it is such an improbable thing to write a poem. What might look sometimes like an obsession is often something more modest, namely a return to the fray, in order to revisit a particular preoccupation, though from a somewhat different angle of vision, or indeed from a different stage of your own experience of life and literature. Each time you return to a theme you return differently, because you are a different person. In doing so, you are actually trying to write that definitive but elusive poem. That said, my thematic field has undoubtedly widened over the years.

Does a poem like ‘Germ Warfare’, in the current collection, suggest that you are becoming harder and less tolerant as you grow older?

A poem like ‘Germ Warfare’ is intended to be nothing other than comic. The issue is one of tone, and my poems are often considered to be more serious than they actually are. When I read them aloud, people realise that there is a large comic element running through them, but this clownish vein isn’t always apparent on the page. Therefore, people take me to be more earnest and grim than I really am.

Do poems come to you by way of flashes of inspiration, or do you set out to write on given themes at pre-determined times?

I would never set out deliberately to write a poem. In fact, I stand accused of doing everything possible to deter myself from writing. I have held a busy civil service job since the age of sixteen and I also do a great deal of reviewing and radio work. I am convinced that inspiration is an absolutely essential element in any art form, and indeed it brings a welcome draught of spontaneity and imagination to every sphere of life.

The opening lines of ‘Couples’, from your ‘Long Story Short’ 1993 collection, talk of ‘The frail economies those cars contain/small hatchbacks bought on term loans’. In their simplicity, these words seem to sum up a central concern of much of your poetry, that of people’s uncertain existence between meaningful and meaningless lives, an existence that most people seem to teeter on in the Western world.

Behind that poem lies concern and compassion, but here again a tonal risk arises. The last thing I would ever wish to be is condescending; and I would want to immediately reconsider – even revise – any poems in which that appeared to be a danger. One of the fundamental emotions in my poetry is empathy. I have the deepest sense of compassion for the bewilderment that people feel when forced to face, on a daily basis, all of the daunting things that life throws at them.

The whole of Part 1 of the new collection, and especially the first six poems, might give readers new to your work a deep sense of depression. They might not feel ‘entertained’ by the experience of reading them.

I would like the poems to be enjoyable on some level, but not entertaining in the passive sense. I would be disappointed if the poems were not entertaining at the level of language and playfulness, and of rhythm and so on, or if people didn’t feel engaged with the work. I hope that they would find the poems cathartic in some way, because I am trying not to flinch from reality, though I am not trying to paint it any blacker than it is, either.

You seem to be profoundly in awe of nature, with many arresting moments described throughout all the collections. Where do you stand in the man v. nature debate?

Sometimes writers feel that their psyche is risked or threatened by toying with darker subjects, because they themselves are – as indeed many creative people famously are – vulnerable to darker moods; as poets, they may produce work that is over-sentimental or over-celebratory, which seems to me to be unconvincing or evasive. The flashes of inspiration that I spoke of earlier stimulate poems in which, ideally, you see the world momentarily lit with clarity. These are split-second truths, truths that say ‘Here is one way of looking at the world, one that provides you with some fundamental insights.’ Nature, as we know it, is full of cruelty and waste; but, through nature, we also paradoxically arrive at a momentary understanding of the redeeming aspects of the world. The compensatory elements that exist in the world are often represented in my work by the shorthand of natural phenomena.

Do you have faith in either God or progress? The poems ‘Exemplary Damages’ and ‘Missing God’ would suggest that if you ever had, you no longer do.

In these uncertain and secular times, I’m not sure what I believe; but I do suspect that there is some greater presence irradiating the universe. I feel a profound sense of mystery; and the more science reveals, the more of that mystery is revealed. Vaclav Havel talks about an ultimate horizon, a force larger than ourselves, something that would equip us with a basis for ethical living. I would tend to agree with Havel that, when human beings banish God from the world, they make gods of themselves. This is the foul rag-and-bone shop where many contemporary problems start.

Published in The Event Guide, 4-17 December 2002

Interview by Brendan Guildea

Do you think poetry, as a medium, is dead to the masses?

In Ireland, poetry is more respected than read. But the fact that it is respected means that there is a favourable environment in which to write. In the so-called ‘advanced’ industrial western countries, it is viewed as an irrelevant medium for the 21st century. This is not yet true of Ireland, where we had a history of poetry as subversive allegory – Ireland personified as a beautiful maiden – and, in the case of people like Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, poetry as protest against the passing of the old Gaelic order. Then there is the patriotic poetry associated with the Young Irelanders and the fact that the leadership of the 1916 rebellion included at least three poets: Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and my own county man from Tipperary, Thomas McDonagh. W.B. Yeats was heavily influenced by an old Fenian, John O’Leary. The Ulster ‘Troubles’ brought Northern poets like Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley to the attention of a wider public than normal. The combined result of all these historical factors is an environment in which poetry is regarded as relatively normal and even potentially valuable. That sense of normality makes Ireland a positive place for poetry, much more so than the inimical, hostile and alienating environments you find in other western countries.

How has being a successful published poet shaped and affected your life? Would you say you get special treatment at all?

I’ve had a job in the civil service since I was 16. Someone sporting a black broad-brimmed hat and playing the artist would not be welcomed in my workplace, where getting on with the job is all that counts and artistic alibis have no force. In the community at large, one is occasionally asked for feedback on a sheaf of unpublished poems; but, for the most part, people don’t pay the least attention to who you are and that suits me perfectly well. I’m absolutely comfortable in my anonymity.

What glamour comes with being a poet?

Poets should aspire to something more worthy of their calling than glamour. They should not even be embarrassed to aspire to lofty concepts like Truth.

How can one fit writing poetry into a life of work?

If anything, it’s an advantage to have a job because it gives you a context for your writing; it broadens your experience; it grants you a living language on which to draw; it provides endless insights into ‘ordinary life’. Problems arise only in finding time to fulfil reading engagements and for work on criticism and reviews. An example of a task which it would be difficult to complete with a full-time job was my Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations, which contains thousands of poetry quotations that were never collected by anybody else. The idea was to avoid replicating what one finds in other reference books and to create an entirely new reference book comprised of fresh and recent material.
When I interviewed Thomas Kinsella for Poetry Ireland Review, he told me that his years as a civil servant had taught him how best to organise his work and his time; the bureaucratic life has certainly taught me a great deal about using my time as economically as possible. Only in the last couple of decades have poets begun to see poetry as a profession rather than as a calling, something for which formal third-level training is necessary, as though it needed regulation like medicine or law.

Do you write best at any particular time of day or in any particular environment?

If you are in the grip of a really good idea nothing will stop you. Some poets indulge in dandified superstitions and are unable to begin writing in the absence of some triggering smell or some favourite ivory-inlaid writing table. But poetry has been written by people in the most abject circumstances, in the course of horrendous incarceration, in poverty, and adrift in remote arctic gulags. A true poem will transcend the circumstances of its making.
But if an ideal situation is an option, it will naturally enough be one where the more quiet there is, the more early morning it is, the more free of distraction you are, the better; but I suspect that these needs relate more to the conscious business of revision than the more unconscious, instinctive and all-absorbing act of writing itself. Pressure can actually lead to inspiration, in fact. It’s often at the moment when you are least able to actually respond that you are tested by some prompt you receive from the muse. If you happen to be in the middle of a meeting, say, then you can scrawl down a quick mnemonic note and successfully build on it later.

Do you go through hundreds of drafts until you’re satisfied a poem is finished?

It’s possible to over-revise, especially if, in the process, you are extinguishing the initial spark, losing the initial spontaneity of the poem. As the French poet, Paul Valéry famously remarked: “No poem is ever completed, only abandoned.” But Valéry’s remark begs the question of how best to tell that the poem on which you are working should now be abandoned. A poet’s critical judgement needs to be as sharp as his or her writing skills. You ought, ideally, to be your own toughest judge, your own most objective arbiter.

How do you work a moment of insight or inspiration into a poem?

I would tend to leave aside the initial fragmentary lines and phrases and, when I returned to them, would hope to be able to tell from experience whether the material was really promising enough to be worthwhile shaping into a poem.

So you ignore your quick note but try to work on its central concept?

No. The poem’s inspiration – a word which, for all its whiff of antiquity, must still serve for what I have in mind – might still not be complete. The note you scrawled may simply be the start of something which requires a separate inspiration for its completion. Another kind of poem – the ideal kind, the most exhilarating – is the one where everything comes together in one wave, fully formed, and all you need to do is write it down and dust it off. Much more common, however, is a third category where you think you have the most marvellous material, but the whole thing falls flat once the actual writing gets underway. To your great frustration and disappointment, you realise that nothing will come of attempts to salvage it. Best not only to abandon it, but to dump it too.

Would you ever leave a poem uncompleted because you were having trouble finding a single word to complete it perfectly?

Very often I will draw on a particular idiom. I might mimic the language of business, say; corporate language of that kind will obviously require its own idiom. So I have to make sure, as if it were a drama, that I am consistent in my deployment of that idiom. The changing of a word might simply be for the sake of consistency. However, at that stage the poem is already essentially either lost or won.

Tell the story of how your first book got to the published.

When I put together my first book-length typescript (a callow and feeble collection, which I now detest), the most established publisher was the Dolmen Press. They had published, in very stylish volumes, the work of Austin Clarke, Padraic Fallon, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, Richard Murphy and Michael Hartnett. So I thought, I should start with Dolmen, although I knew nobody at all in the company and no one had offered to put in a word on my behalf. One morning at work, a letter of reply arrived. The envelope was aglow with Louis Le Brocquy’s lovely red logo of a dolmen. I tore it open and can still recall the phrase used by Liam Miller, the Dolmen Press founder: he said he was ‘vividly impressed’ by the poems and that, if Arts Council support was forthcoming, they certainly would publish them. With the presumption of youth, I assumed that this was how the world worked. You package up your poems, despatch them off to a good publisher and receive an automatic acceptance. If only things were that simple…

What advice would you offer those with aspirations of one day being a published poet?

Every young poet has no choice other than to establish some track record in the literary journals before submitting a book to a publisher. Doing so will also provide vital editorial feedback, even if it comes in the stark form of rejection slips. This is all part of the normal apprenticeship and should not inhibit anyone who is truly dedicated to the art of poetry – someone, that is, who is driven to write poetry rather than to be a poet.

Published in Icarus (Trinity College, Dublin), Volume 58, No. 3, May 2008.

Book Depository Interview By Mark Thwaite

Have you known Seamus Heaney for long, Dennis? How did you become friends?

Years ago, I wrote that ‘Heaney’s lack of self-importance makes those he meets feel important, and there can scarcely be a reader left in Ireland who does not claim (based on a single encounter) to know him, or even to know him well (a status earned by a second meeting).’ Although Seamus Heaney and I have known each other for a long time – I attended the launch of his third collection, Wintering Out (1972), when I was eighteen; I interviewed him for a Dublin weekly journal at the time of his fortieth birthday in 1979 – I keep my distance in Stepping Stones. The book is about him, not about ‘us’, and, so, I am as invisible, as impersonal, as unobtrusive as possible in its pages.

What first gave you the idea for writing Stepping Stones?

I have a strong archival impulse – as was demonstrated by my two voluminous collections of contemporary quotations about poetry: The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations (2006) and its American counterpart Quote Poet Unquote (Copper Canyon Press, 2008). Those books – in which Seamus Heaney is well represented – snatch from oblivion a plethora of definitions, ruminations and witticisms that would otherwise vanish on the airwaves or moulder in obscure little literary magazines. A similar motivation operated for Stepping Stones. Is there a more wise, profound and eloquent interviewee in poetry than Seamus Heaney? I wanted to capture his ideas at much greater length than other interviews had; to rescue reflections or recollections that would be absent from the record otherwise. My hope was that the book would present a three-dimensional portrait of the artist, a biography in all but name; by doing so in his own words, it would amount to a Heaney autobiography also.

Can you tell us how the interviews in Stepping Stones were conducted and over what time period?

Some parts of the book (Chapter 13, for instance) are transcripts of oral conversations, but most of the interviews were conducted in short written bursts between 2002 and 2007. At a time when Seamus Heaney was intensely preoccupied with more important things than dialoguing with me (he was composing the poems in District and Circle, drafting and delivering lectures, travelling abroad on literary and teaching duties, translating Sophocles’ Antigone for the Abbey Theatre as The Burial at Thebes, assembling his essays for Finders Keepers), it was not feasible to proceed in any other way. But each time the rare opportunity presented itself, he responded to my latest volley of questions at precisely the kind of fleet-footed, improvisatory pace that marks the best oral interviews. In any event, the written (usually e-mail) interview is now increasingly prevalent and has become the norm on literary websites. Long before the internet, some of the most enjoyable interviews came in written form: Philip Larkin’s Paris Review gem, for example, and Vladimir Nabokov’s masquerade.

Seamus Heaney is a poetic giant of our times – were you ever star-struck!?

Was and am. But I would opt for ‘awe-struck’ rather than ‘star-struck’ because his fame was most certainly not the spur that impelled me to retrace the trajectory of his life. I was every bit as much in awe of his genius when I interviewed him in his seventieth year as I was when I interviewed him as he was about to turn forty and publish Field Work. More so, actually – because, by the time of Stepping Stones, there was a much greater bibliography to marvel at.

Presumably you knew Heaney’s poetry intimately before you began interviewing him? To you, what are his great strengths as a poet?

His superlative gift for matching words with things, things with emotions. Possession of the richest and most individual vocabulary of any living writer helps, as does the capacity to constantly recreate himself as a poet – he cultivates fresh new laurels rather than resting on old, dry, brittle ones.

What were you most surprised to learn about the man and the poet as your interviews progressed?

Every page of Stepping Stones contains surprises – of description, reflection or recollection. Revelation? There are revelations aplenty too – Heaney’s passport not having been ‘green’ until he moved to the Republic of Ireland in the 1970s; his having been sounded out for the poet laureateship… But Stepping Stones is not so much The Book of Revelations as The Book of Impressions. It is dotted with pointillist clusters of evocative detail that gradually cohere into a life-size colour portrait.

Is Heaney an Irish poet? By that I mean is trying to understand something that we call Ireland essential to understanding Heaney’s work?

He is not just an Irish poet or a Northern Irish poet but a south County Derry poet, steeped in local lore, language and memories. Ulster dialect words, that have no currency in Tipperary where I grew up, are his gold standard for living language, against which other Englishes are judged, just as his apprehension of the eternal verities is grounded in the experiences of his Derry childhood. At the same time, Seamus Heaney is no more Irish than that other poet of the local, universal and eternal, James Joyce. Both men think locally and write globally.

What was the most difficult aspects of bringing Stepping Stones to life? How did you overcome them?

The most time-consuming part – and it is too trivial to merit more than the briefest of mentions – was the preparation of the editorial apparatus: dialect glossary, chronology, bibliography, biographical glossary. Fact-checking is as tedious as it is essential: an inaccuracy in a biography is as catastrophic as a misprint in a poem.

You are a poet yourself Dennis — is poetry inspiration or perspiration in your experience!?

99% inspiration and 1% perspiration. Philip Larkin, with his usual gnomic brilliance, encapsulates the matter with less sweat: ‘You cannot write a poem unless you have a poem to write.’

Did you have an idea in your mind of your “ideal” reader? Did you write specifically for them?

The essential part (the 99% bit) of writing a poem – seizing on the initial revelation of form, rhythm, image – is over so quickly that there is no time for thought of ‘the reader’ to enter into the process. ‘The reader’ may make an appearance in the course of revision (the 1% bit), if issues of clarity and comprehensibility arise as one begins to wonder how baffled or otherwise people will be by the more recondite aspects of the poem.

What do you do when you are not writing?

I edit a magazine. Not quite an anti-poetry magazine, but most certainly not a literary one – Tax Briefing, the technical journal of Ireland’s Revenue and Customs service, which analyses current developments in tax legislation and administration. Very popular with tax advisors and accountants, they phone me frequently to ask when the next issue is due. I wonder if poetry magazines attract such eager readers.

What are you working on now Dennis?

Michael Hamburger, who died in 2007, was one of my earliest and most revered literary mentors and friends. His translations are known but his other writings are unjustly overlooked. I have begun curating a Michael Hamburger Reader, with a view to exhibiting his most permanent work. That archival drive again!

Who is your favourite poet and who is your favourite prose writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

My favourite modern poet is Bertolt Brecht, to whose ‘Buckow Elegies’ Michael Hamburger introduced me. My favourite poetry anthologies are The New Oxford Book of Sixteenth-Century Verse, edited by Emrys Jones, and Daniel Weissbort’s The Poetry of Survival. My favourite prose writers include Herman Melville, George Eliot and Henry James. A contemporary novel I admire is Beat Sterchi’s Blösch (dubbed ‘the Ulysses of the dairy cow’ by one of my friends); it has been translated from German by Michael Hofmann, one of the very best poets of my generation.

Do you have any tips for the aspiring poet!?

Poetry is a form of play. Play is a diversion from work. All play and no work will make Jack a dull poet.

Interview by Eugene O’Connell

Was Stepping Stones, your book of interviews with Seamus Heaney, intended to be more than a biography?

It would be more accurate to say that, at first, I had less than a biography in mind.  My initial plan was simply to record as much as possible of Heaneyspeak, to capture for future generations – as well as contemporary readers – something of the social, personal Heaney.  It’s certainly true that I wanted to preserve biographical data (stray memories, fugitive incidents, significant views that would otherwise go AWOL from the record); but the register of his everyday language was even more important to me.  My hope was to present the man one meets away from the podium and the microphone; to offer Heaney’s public audience a private audience with the poet.  The words foremost in my mind were ‘archive’ and ‘record’ rather than ‘biography’ or ‘memoir’.

The Q and A format is quite dramatic, theatrical because it is conversational and taking place in real time.

Having resolved – in the interests of full disclosure, as we bureaucrats say – to describe my working methods in the introduction to Stepping Stones, I knew that some reviewers would be peeved that much of the interview was conducted in writing.  Their disappointment is misplaced: the book does not purport to be a conversation (it is carefully subtitled ‘Interviews with Seamus Heaney’); anyway, interviews conducted in writing outnumber other kinds nowadays and have become the default mode of the online age.  There is very little difference between Chapter 13 of Stepping Stones – which is entirely oral – and the written chapters; had I not made my ‘full disclosure’, nobody would have noticed.  Besides, numerous augmentations were made by Heaney, in person at my house and over the phone; these brought an additional conversational spontaneity to what were already sprightly and speedy responses.  Commenting on the written format of the book, John Clarke – in a review for the New Zealand Listener – put it well: ‘There has been some criticism…from the Lilliputian cavalry on the basis that Heaney could have been put under more pressure by direct confrontation. Pay no attention.  Heaney has long needed to find safe ground for open, relaxed and generous discourse.  And incidentally, even when putting up the shutters, Heaney will go very nicely.’

Your line of questioning was clinical but not intrusive.  Like a prompter in the wings.

Well, to maintain your theatrical metaphor, I would respond by saying that I very deliberately pared my own lines to the minimum.  I have an aversion to interviewers whose questions and contentions hog more space than the poet’s responses – not to mention the interviewers who foist their opinions on the reader and generally attempt to outshine the interviewee (impossible with Seamus Heaney, in any case).  In Stepping Stones, I keep a respectful distance, intrude only minimally, and never as much as once address the poet – or, in my introductory chapter, refer to him – on first-name terms.  It’s not as though the interviewer is a kind of ‘running mate’ of the interviewee.  You are more like a butler – as discreet and invisible as possible, carrying a tray of stimulants (but nothing so strong that your interlocutor will become tediously garrulous or recklessly incautious).   This does not mean that difficult and searching questions are verboten.  Not at all.  I took Heaney into some sensitive and difficult territory.

Like Seamus Heaney, you are interested in Eastern European writing of the clinical, almost anti-poetic kind.  Yet, his poetry is quite traditionally lyrical.

What he says about this in Stepping Stones is illuminating: ‘My way with words was very different.  I would tend to “colour in” whereas they [the East European poets] were very much for the black-and-white line-drawing.’  My own position is a Pegasus of a different colour from Heaney’s; his seminal influences as a young poet included Patrick Kavanagh, Ted Hughes and especially Gerard Manley Hopkins.  My discovery of Holub – and, very soon afterwards, of Vasko Popa, Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz, Janos Pilinszky, Tadeusz Rozewicz and numerous others – occurred at a much earlier and more impressionable age in my writing ‘career’ than in Heaney’s.  Holub was my Hopkins; and I was more interested in Hughes’s versions of Pilinszky than in Hughes’s own poetry, which seemed to have lost its way at that time.  I remain as devoted as ever to the work of the post-war East Europeans.  My enthusiasm proved more solid than the Berlin Wall.

What is the state of East European poetry now?  Has it lost its moral authority?

It did not lose its moral authority, it renounced it.  Inevitably, understandably, the poets born in the fifties and sixties subscribed to a lighter (more playful, more personal, more irreverent) aesthetic than their war-dazed elders.  The idea that a poet had some responsibility to address burning political and ethical issues was inimical to these younger poets; and, anyway, with the fall of the Wall, even their distinguished elders had – as the sardonic György Petri (one of the very best Hungarian poets) put it – lost their ‘favourite toy’ and, with it, much of their prophetic potential.  The East European poet is now on an all too equal footing with his or her Western counterparts: equally ignored, equally unread, equally sidelined.

After 1989, the younger writers went on a kind of poetic binge.  In Romania, when I visited in 1993, the former Young Pioneers of the Ceausescu era had morphed into fervent Young Postmoderns.  In Poland, the ‘cool’ new poets were like the local franchises of an American poetry chain.  The Frank O’Haraiska pastiche they concocted made for decidedly inferior fare, like cola based on beetroot.  But things have moved on; and poets such as Tomasz Rózycki, Marzanna Kielar, Agnieszka Kuciak, Anna T. Szabó, Aleš Šteger and Petr Borkovec ensure that the lands of Kocbek, Holan, Weöres and Szymborska remain firmly on my ‘must read’ map.  My current reading, in fact, includes Peregrinary – translations of Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki (born in Poland in 1962) whose death-chilled poetry is as unlike the New York School as cream cheese and bagels from kielbasa and cabbage.

You’re a ‘townie’ of course, unlike Heaney.  Do you go back to Thurles much now?

I am a ‘townie’ only if you mean someone who did not grow up on a farm.  Both of my parents had grown up on farms and our house, though little more than a mile from the metropolis of Thurles, was beyond the urban boundary and the street lights.  No neighbours nearby.  No houses visible from our gaunt two-storey structure on a loopy road between Thurles and Littleton.  My Mill Road home place, insofar as I can judge, was as isolated as Seamus Heaney’s Mossbawn – the pitch-dark dash from town to home was a heart-thumping, fast-pedalling challenge for an imaginative young boy abroad on an eerie winter evening.  Like the Heaney family, we had no piped water and kept drought at bay with a backyard hand-pump and big red-lead-painted barrels of rain water.  Further down the road, three families without running water lugged buckets of drinking water from a shallow stream, to which they had to travel half a mile each way.  We had no TV, no phone or record player, at any stage of my childhood.  Mine was not an Amish upbringing (the family Volkswagen was our buggy); but it was certainly an austere and puritanical one, complete with cold washes, glowing chilblains, sputtering pink paraffin heaters, and interminable rosaries.

The town I return to these days has encroached on my birthplace; but it is pleasingly preserved in some respects.  Paddy Doyle (brother of Jimmy Doyle, the crew-cutted hurling star), who administered some of my earliest ‘short back and sides’ haircuts, still wields his electric shears in exactly the same spot.  Mrs Dempsey, who would make up brown-paper-and-twine parcels of crimplene dresses for my mother (now thirty-five years dead) to try ‘on appro’, still palely smiles behind the fabric-laden counter of the most unchanged drapery shop in Ireland.  Institutions, commercial and clerical, such as Hayes’s Hotel and St Patrick’s College, stand their ground.  In many places, though, I see the shops beneath the current shops: I have served Bilko’s chipper, the Milk Bar, Muck Gleeson’s sweet shop, Bertie Connaughton’s (famed for the best rhubarb tarts and ripple ice creams in the town), and all my other vanished haunts with personal preservation orders.  I suppose I could best summarise my Thurles visits in John Montague’s lines:

…I assume old ways of walk and work

So easily, yet feel the sadness of return

To what seems still, though changing.

The most telling thing, though, to add about Thurles is that it was a truly industrious – even industrial – town in my childhood: Irish Sugar, Erin Foods, Phoenix Yarns, Dwan’s Minerals, O’Meara’s Minerals and Suir Valley Ice-Cream (‘Suir Valley for Sure Value’) were significant employers.  By the time the ‘Celtic Tiger’ began to roar, each of these enterprises had been shut down or scaled down; the town now lives on a combination of illusion and the spending power of EU-aided farmers from the hinterland.  The Thurles Tiger earned its stripes in the fifties and sixties.

The loss of your parents early in life coloured your world view.  That experience is mirrored in Thomas McCarthy’s poetry – yet you both adopted radically different personas.

Two exact contemporaries from Munster – one from a Tipperary backwater, the other from the Waterford Blackwater – were bound to feel some bond, a bond deepened by the early loss of parents you mention and even by our having common publishers (first books with Dolmen Press and subsequent collections from Peter Jay’s Anvil Press).  But McCarthy’s work was far more achieved than mine – think of fully-realised poems of the standard of ‘Daedalus, the Maker’ and ‘State Funeral’ from a poet of his youth.  His debut, The First Convention, is the assured work of an incipient master, my Kist poems the trial-pieces of a gauche apprentice.  He has gone on standard-setting, and is a much more personal poet than I am: less austere, less detached, a writer steeped in the hubbub of history, politics and arcane lore.  The word ‘I’ – no trouble to McCarthy, though his work is anything but egotistical – is the most recalcitrant one in my vocabulary, the least comfortable and yielding…

You went into the civil service at the age of sixteen and have worked there ever since – a CV that would surprise today’s students.

Yes, like Thomas McCarthy in Cork City Libraries, I have remained a worker-poet.  Having very little of the artist in me, I could never have presented myself to the world, with a straight face, as a professional poet – poetry has always been something of a furtive pursuit for me.  My job, a practical necessity, has taught me an immense amount about how the world operates at boardroom, courthouse, tribunal, government and EU levels.  It has also been instructive to me in cumulatively significant ways – in understanding human relations, in organising time, in handling legal matters.  Energy-sapping though my roles have been – for example, as departmental co-ordinator for Ireland’s 1996 Presidency of the EU, and as long-time manager of the Stamp Duties office – I was far better fitted for them than for a role as creative writing teacher or workshop director.

You have remarked that the writing of poetry must be accommodated into a life.  Could you elaborate on what you mean?

Wasn’t it Saint Benedict who exhorted his monks to partake in the ‘the common lot of mankind’?  I am a Benedictine insofar as I aspire, in my fumbling way, to his formula of ‘daily work, harmonious living with others, and spiritual reading’.  Poets have a tendency to shun the workaday world and either to withdraw into isolation or to gravitate towards the creative writing departments.  One could hardly chide Emily Dickinson for, as it were, selecting her own non-society.  Coming from a patrician Massachusetts family, she was free to choose a way of life that indulged her eccentricities; fortunately, she was capable of transforming her vision of life into high-resolution verbal images, even at a distance from the normal daily round.  But in talent and temperament Dickinson was a once-off; and I can’t help feeling that contemporary poetry might be a bit less solipsistic and, in some cases also, less esoteric if poets inhabited less specialised and rarefied milieus.  A non-literary job provides a writer not just with a vital pay cheque that spares you from hackwork, but also supplies a useful context and language in which to ground your poetry.  Still, I’m extremely wary of laying down laws for others; ‘the heart has its reasons’ and so does the Muse.

What are you reading at the moment?  

I finally read Paradise Lost in full last year – with mixed impressions (all that is Milton definitely does not glitter) and I usually have a Shakespeare cassette ready for a command performance at the press of the ‘Play’ button on my ultra-retro Walkman: Two Gentlemen of Verona is in repertoire at present, playing nightly, as it were, at the Walkman Theatre.  I am re-reading Michael Hamburger’s The Truth of Poetry in preparation for an anthology I proposed to Anvil Press: a much-needed ‘Michael Hamburger Reader’.  Hamburger was a critic of genius; I also look forward to revisiting his poems, along with his meticulous translations of Hölderlin, Trakl, Brecht, Celan and other German poets I revere.  I am enjoying Sarah Ruden’s translation of The Aeneid – the most quietly convincing and elegantly economic Aeneid of our time – and To the Castle and Back, the memoirs of a longstanding hero of mine, Vaclav Havel.  I recently bought David Hinton’s Mountain Home, an anthology of the ‘wilderness poetry of ancient China’ (my idea of perfect escapist reading!); and – for its craft, characterisation and imagery – I was captivated and unsettled by Adam Foulds’s dark verse novel, The Broken World.

Which contemporary critical voices do you trust?

The current standard of reviewing strikes me as reassuringly high.  I am always impressed by the willingness of underpaid and under-read reviewers to engage at the deepest levels with contemporary poetry (where of course similar pay scales and readership figures prevail).  Literary journals – doomed in the online era though these civilising agents may be – contain serious essay-length considerations of poetry, many of them written by academics, who – contrary to caricature – are by no means exclusively given to jargon-ridden prose.  Outside of universities, there are first-rate critics – Adam Kirsch is the most forthright, intelligent and deeply-read poet-critic since the masterful W.H. Auden and Randall Jarrell – and there are lots of commentators reviewing and blogging and arguing with a passion that evinces the continued vibrancy of poetry.  Nonetheless, if book reviewing were to retreat entirely from newspapers to blogs and dedicated literary websites, or indeed if newspapers themselves were to become obsolete, this would be a very great loss.  Book reviews too should be part of the ‘daily lot’ – or the daily fare, at least – of the commuter, the horseracing fan and the sudoku puzzler.  I am praying to Saint Benedict that serious newspapers – with the liberal education they provide to non-specialist readers – will survive our century, but I fear they are doomed: a case perhaps to be referred on appeal to Saint Jude!

Any hobbies?  Do you support the Tipperary team?

I am sorry to confess that, although I grew up among G.A.A. diehards, I have never entered a sports arena of any kind since the obligatory ‘games’ at school came to a merciful end for me in May 1970.  I have never watched a soccer or rugby game in my entire life – I don’t even know the basic rules.  My great passion, after poetry, is for visual art.  While clocking up the air miles during my ten years as an Irish Customs delegate at EU and Eurocustoms meetings, I did the rounds of the local galleries on their late-opening nights.  My richest and finest hours included time spent in Seville with Zurbarán, after a CITES training course on stemming illicit trade in endangered species, and at retrospectives elsewhere of painters as utterly different as the racy Félicien Rops and the demure Jan Vermeer, who converted paint into silence.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in a house without a television that I have an extremely low TV tolerance; but I could not live without radio.  BBC Radio 3 has been my conservatoire since I first came within its broadcasting ambit in my teens: it is to this great station I owe my love of Bach, Purcell, Schubert, Mahler and my discovery of contemporary composers like Lutoslawski, Carter, Del Tredici and Tavener.  And I am indebted to BBC Radio 4 for the smattering of knowledge I have gained (from ‘In Our Time’) on everything from the Fibonacci sequence to the fall of Carthage.  Professor David Reynolds’s recent series on American history has been an education.  Documentaries, plays, World Service news, business programmes presented by Peter Day, and arts programmes (‘The Poetry Programme’, ‘The Arts Show’, ‘Off the Shelf’, ‘Artzone’, ‘Night Waves’, ‘Arts Extra’, ‘Front Row’, ‘The Strand’ – the whole lot) are meat and drink to me.  And, speaking of meat and drink, I enjoy my unsophisticated attempts at cooking – though my spouse, Julie O’Callaghan, is a more versatile cook (a superb verse chef too – her first collection was called Edible Anecdotes).

Do you and Julie read each other’s work?

As her readers will know – and she deserves far more of those – Julie has one of the most acute ears in the business, so she is the ideal person to pinpoint a bogus or pretentious note.  She reads much more fiction than poetry and is not in the least impressed by a poem which is dull, banal or rhetorical.  Her base language is American rather than Irish; this in itself – besides our entirely different personalities and preoccupations – ensures that we do not jam each other’s poetry signals.  Still, a relationship built on poetry alone, would certainly not have lasted since 1974 when we first met in a basement theatre in Dublin.  Auspiciously enough, this Lantern Theatre encounter took place at a reading by the future author of The Haw Lantern, Seamus Heaney.  His aptly-named Finders Keepers is dedicated to us both – our marriage blessing.

Do you have a trusted reader of your work?

No.  Other than Julie, I never inflict my work in progress on anybody.  I always have more doubts of my own than I can handle, without accommodating further critical voices also.  And I wouldn’t dream of asking anyone for an advance blurb; writers of poetry should be far more measured in their language than copywriters.  Blurbs are glorified advertising slogans.

Having written so much about office life and the business world, in ‘The Bottom Line’ and elsewhere, the current economic crisis must be grist to your mill? 

Poetry is most convincing when its elements have been lived.  You can research a novel, dress your characters in borrowed robes, and stuff their mouths with appropriated speech.  However, language itself – rather than character, plot and dialogue – is at the heart of poetry and it is very difficult to commandeer words which elicit no personal echo.  In my Stamp Duty years, when I specialised in the taxation of company reorganisations and amalgamations, negotiations with financial controllers and banking executives frequently arose.  In Customs, we were constantly in touch with what we called ‘the trade’ – I was a member of the Customs Consultative Committee, on which exporters, hauliers, chambers of commerce etc. were represented.  My Muse, therefore, is a fluent speaker of business jargon.  Of what we can speak, we need not be silent.

Finally, to last things…  I’m intrigued by how few poets believe in an afterlife, or indeed any class of God.  Where do you stand on this question?

I would incline towards ticking the ‘non non-believer’ box on the God questionnaire.  I shrink from the big affirmations, the thundering assertions, the breast-beating credos.  Yet, I am not without deeply-held convictions and principles, among which is a recognition of the possibility, indeed probability, that some guiding or creative force operates in the universe, though I cannot assign words, let alone characteristics, to it.  It is impossible, anyway, to speak meaningfully about things way beyond our intellectual, whatever about intuitive or imaginative, reach.  ‘Of what we cannot speak…’  The notion that space, time, matter and energy suddenly sprang out of nothing is about as plausible as virgin birth; but, as we speed along our own globally-warmed path to nothingness, we seem hell-bent on uncreating the world.

I was a devout youth, a daily Mass-goer during my school holidays (without the least family or teacher pressure), and an occasional caller at the then-bustling St Patrick’s seminary, where lively discussion in book-lined rooms was always possible.  Although I never – not for one second – seriously considered training for the priesthood, I was intrigued by the big metaphysical questions and entranced by the profound and subtle language of ritual.  I still occasionally buy The Furrow and Doctrine and Life, and my poems are imbued with biblical allusions.  Virtually every one of my collections contains poems addressing the God question: from ‘Prayer’ in Kist to ‘Intercession’ and ‘The Call’ in Reality Check.  My poem, ‘Missing God’, is not a mere exercise in religious nostalgia.  Paul Celan’s ‘Tenebrae’ and ‘Psalm’ are among the glories – and the glorias – of the non-non-believer’s hymnal:

Praised be your name, No one.

For your sake

we shall flower.



 Any thoughts on your personal legacy to literature?

It is easier to believe in God than in oneself…  Very little of the poetry of the present will feature in the reading material of the future; so I have every confidence that my writings will die intestate: an ironic fate, given that my first civil service posting was to the Estate Duty Office, where, for thirteen years, legacies were my bread and butter!


Published in Cork Literary Review, Volume XIII, 2009, edited by Eugene O’Connell.