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.