Thursday, May 17, 2018

Breaking the Line - essay

I have noticed when talking to friends who are interested in poetry but perhaps not dedicated readers of it, that the use of the line-break in modern poetry often confuses, or even confounds, them. So I decided, as a challenge, to tackle the problem head-on and write this short essay to explain why (and how) poets use this device in their work. I also think it is very helpful for poets starting out to have a very clear grasp of why they are using 'the break' and the wide possibilities it presents to them. I hope, then, that this piece might be of help and interest to both groups: readers and purveyors of poetry. 

This essay first appeared in Poetry Ireland's literary pamphlet Trumpet, issue 7, late last year. My gratitude to editor Paul Lenehan for including it.

Breaking the Line

When discussing the ‘line-break’ in poetry it is first necessary to talk about the difference between the ‘sentence’ and the ‘line’ itself. For the prose writer the ‘sentence’ is their cornerstone. Through varying the sentence length, and manipulating it by adding cadence and pause, they create a complex craft from it as its unit of meaning. However, for the poet there is one added technique which is the line-break – the way a poem measures itself out in lines rather than sentences, most often to convey ‘movement’ through the poem. This gives rise to many intriguing and unique possibilities.

To begin, though, I will start with a ‘counter-example’: a poem that eschews the use of the line-break to convey its meaning and doesn’t rely on it for its movement. In the well-known poem ‘Gift’ by Czesław Miłosz, the poet simply uses nine simple statements ranging from the visual, the abstract and the emotional, with each line in the poem matching the sentence precisely and therefore shunning the obvious aspect of the ‘break’. Here are the four opening lines:

A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.

The absence of line-breaks here creates a sense of ‘stillness’, of tranquility, yet the poem continues to move (subtly) forward due to the variation in the length of the line/sentence, an effect sometimes referred to by prose writers as ‘modulation’.

A sense of harmony and stillness in a poem can proceed also, of course, by using a sentence that extends beyond one line. In Anne Sexton’s ‘The Truth the Dead Know’, written after her mother’s death, the piece opens with these lines:

Gone, I say and walk from the church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.

The statement of her ‘refusing’ the procession ‘to the grave’ is mirrored in the tightly controlled processional feeling of the lines, the effect somehow heightening the restrained grief. The first three lines ‘run-on’ but in such a way as there is a balance between the clauses and speech rhythms contained within each. Each line-break has a ‘soft’ quality until, quite brilliantly, Sexton uses the two short sentences embedded in one line to create a sense of deflated closure. Modulation can be a useful tool in poetry also, as proven here, as an inversion of our expectation that poetry mainly utilises the run-on line.

The line-break can also be used to enable a sense of strong movement through the lines of a poem, acting as a propulsive force, offering tension and then resolution with an ‘end-stopped line’. The Romantic poets often stretched the limits of the line-break to employ momentum through and across ‘the line’. An instructive example, from William Wordsworth, show us, in these lines, the ‘new’ expansion of the language of poetry:

It is a beauteous Evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity…

Enjambment (as run-on is technically called) essentially changes the balance between the sentence and the line, establishing a tension and forward movement that forces the reader not to pause at the end of the line but to move expectantly to the next, the line-break encouraging a semi-pause or, sometimes, no pause at all. Yet, when it comes to the various effects of the line-break we can’t fully itemise these unless we consider also the added aspect of ‘music’ in poetry that serves to emphasise its impact and meaning. In such cases, music reinforces the effect of ‘the break’, the run-on line, in a sense, keeping us off-balance and acting as a kind of regulatory valve as we move through the lines of a piece: such a dramatic idea, that we take for granted today.

An example of this effect can be further heightened by ‘internal rhyme’, which intensifies the ‘swing’ over the musical line to the next line as a musical echo. A similar, if more immediate, effect is to look at what I call ‘swing-rhyme’. Here, the rhyme at the end of one line is immediately followed by a rhyme at the start of the next. This is a stanza from the poem ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ (which translates as ‘Forget-me-not’) by the Second World War poet, Keith Douglas:

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

I love this poem, despite its difficult subject matter. The ‘swing rhyme’ from line 2 to 3, coupled with a general rhyme scheme, serves to amplify the action expressed, exploiting the line-break to dramatic, almost explosive, impact.

For me, one of the most interesting uses of the line-break is how it enacts (or should enact) the meaning of a poem, its rhythms perfectly matching the movement and subject. A great example of this are the hesitant, off-balance, lines of Paula Meehan’s piece ‘Take a breath. Hold it. Let it go.’ The young poet is about to leave the family home but watches as her sister make-pretends a circus act on the boundary wall in the garden. She views it with a sense of foreboding:

She steps out
on the narrow breeze block fence. If I shout,
I’ll startle her. She’ll fall …


She falls anyway. I could not save her.

The movement and sense of the lines here make for an off-kilter feeling. It’s interesting also how the short sentences punctuate the line (rather like Anne Sexton’s use of modulation), giving us the ‘high-wire’ act of her sister, enacting both form and meaning to achieve this by utilising the line and line-break to brilliant effect.

Finally, one of the most powerful effects of the line-break is that it can be used to place ‘heavy’ emphasis on the last word of a given line. A compelling example of this can be found in Derek Mahon’s poem ‘After the Titanic’. Here are a few lines as the liner sinks and the speaker says:

... my poor soul
    Screams out in the starlight, heart
Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.                          

The phrase ‘heart breaks loose’ is a powerful one, but more powerful still by breaking on the word ‘heart’. It intensifies the meaning of that word and, added to this, the absence of a pronoun before ‘heart’ further develops the sentiment: in a way, it is the heart of everyone on that sinking ship that is captured at that moment. Not ‘my’ or ‘your’ heart, but simply ‘heart’. It’s a powerful expression of communality, powerfully expressed in the poem’s extreme context.

The line-break is perhaps the quintessential aspect of poetry, defining it as a distinct form in literature. It allows the poet to manipulate language in a way that no other technique can quite achieve. Being in control of it, is as close as we come in poetry to realising the careful rhythm of a master film editor’s hands, or a great painter’s articulated brushstroke; the line break is as characteristic as both in generating the pace, energy and signature of a given work.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Poetry of Science - essay

This piece first appeared in Poetry Ireland News in summer 2012. I write from a personal perspective here on how I moved from the world of science to the world of poetry, reflecting on what I see as the relationship between science and art and their necessary functions as different approaches to knowledge in contemporary society – an increasingly relevant question, I feel. In any case, I hope you find it interesting.

For more essays  from Poetry Ireland's archive, you can find a full index here. Well worth a visit!


The Poetry of Science

Look into the cup: the tissue of order
Forms under your stare. The living surfaces
Mirror each other, gather everything
Into their crystalline world...
– Thomas Kinsella, ‘Phoenix Park’

The first poem that filled me with a genuine excitement was encountered one day in a stuffy classroom in my final year in secondary school. It was Thomas Kinsella’s ‘Mirror in February’. I enjoyed poetry but this poem seemed different and more immediate. It was written by someone not distant from me in time and language, but a poet still writing as I read it – Kinsella then being the only such living poet on the English syllabus.
I faced a dilemma as I approached my Leaving Cert exams. As well as English and History I was also passionate about Maths and Physics. The question was which would I prefer to study at University? In the end, I chose Natural Sciences and found myself in Trinity College, daunted at first by the transition to higher mathematics, chemistry and physics. Thankfully, after the terror of the first term, I settled in and was an eager student, choosing to major in Experimental Physics under the guidance of my supervisor, one Prof Iggy McGovern – known to many of you now as the author of two excellent poetry collections.
At that time neither Iggy nor I talked about poetry, though I had continued to read it as I headed towards my finals, with friends in the English Department recommending poets like Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and other modernists. Whilst I was sometimes baffled by these poets, I enjoyed the challenge such work provided. After graduation, I worked for about a year as a research assistant at the Department, but found I had no stomach for the often repetitive and slow nature of research physics. Despite my passion for the subject I didn’t see a direct future in it, and after a period of crisis decided to revisit that earlier moment of reflected encounter in ‘Mirror in February’ and try my own hand at writing poetry. My progress was reasonably quick and within a few years my first published poem, ‘Apple’, appeared in Poetry Ireland Review 47, edited by Moya Cannon, in autumn 1995. It was a piece about Newton.
I had no concept of myself at that point as a ‘scientist-poet’. It just seemed natural to me that with a background in physics – and a passion for all the sciences – that this world-view would seep its way into what I was writing as subject matter, explored in the unique vocabularies that science also provided me with. For example, in an early poem, ‘Dragonflies’, I describe the dragonflies as ‘they dart from one point to another / plotting the water’s surface / with their ghost geometries’. For me, nature poetry after Darwin had to somehow reflect this altered view of the natural world. I also found in scientific figures rich material for poems, writing pieces about Einstein (‘Einstein’s Compass’) and Galileo (‘The Moons’) as well as Newton. I also became quite fascinated with natural history and a series of poems followed about paleontology, geology, insects, astronomy and even mathematics.
At the same time, I naturally also wrote about more immediate and personal concerns: family, lovers, friendship, loss and grief. The type of material that perhaps we expect to see in a contemporary poetry collection. The difficulty I faced was how to make these different types of subject-matter work in some unified way to form a collection itself. It took me some time to achieve this, but eventually I realised that these subjects- the philosophical and the personal - could exist side by side, the intimate, personal dramas placed against the grand backdrop of geological and even cosmological time, perhaps in the way the gods provided the epic context for the lives of mortals in classical literature. For me, the fleeting moments of lived experience are placed against the vista of what we might call ‘deep’ time.
Inevitably, I faced the question in doing this: what is poetry’s relationship to science? I think we have to be clear here and say that the arts and the sciences serve different, though no less important, functions. Science’s job is to examine disparate phenomena and find a law or theory that shows how they are connected. This hypothesis is then tested and if proven true gives us an ‘objective’ truth. Poetry also tries to find patterns of connections and draw unexpected material together to form a coherent poem, but it can never aspire to the empiricism of science, nor should it. In the end, a poem can only persuade rather than prove. It captures something of the ‘subjective’ experience of living, though by means that make such an experience recognisable or comprehensible to another person. We might borrow an important concept from science and call this a form of ‘resonance’.
And perhaps by writing about science I’m attempting to bring these seemingly abstract and even distant ideas into some kind of imaginative resonance with the nature of our lived lives, so that they too may form part of the fabric of our experience in the process; that such ‘ideas’ may also be felt as the ‘tissue of order’ that Kinsella speaks of in ‘Phoenix Park’ – an order that both disciplines search for, albeit in very different fashions. That is, at least, something of what I hope to achieve in my work.

June 2012


Red of course. The colour
of blood. Shining and smooth,
its form perfected and round.
An emblem of the human

mind, nestled up there
among the leaves innocent
of its fate, swaying
in a green dream about

to waken. Ripe and
waiting for the final
nudge, the soft slap
              of the breeze, to fall

              down to the ground
              with a thud beside
              the place he sits, to
              start again the ancient act

              of the naming of parts.

              from In the Library of Lost Objects (Ward Wood Publishing, 2011)





Thursday, March 29, 2018

'Crime Scene' - poem

I hadn't planned to write another collection after my last, Summer Rain, for quite some time. The thing is, the lead in time for publication is often 18 months to two years and, frankly, I got bored waiting so decided to write a short sequence called 12 Imaginary Postcards, a vague idea for a suite of short, imagistic poems I've had for a long time.

In the end, the idea grew beyond its initial (short) intention and became a full-length semi-narrative collection called Street Light Amber: A Metaphysical Love story. The publication date is yet to be set in any firm way, but I hope it will appear early next year if my publisher sees fit etc.

For now, here's a slightly eerie poem from the book. As the 'story' unfolds there is an ever growing sense of uneasiness that creeps in, to the point of (let's call it) suburban disturbia. I think this piece best captures that aspect of the work so here it is. I hope you like it, even if subtly unsettled by it. I was when I wrote it.

The poem first appeared in journal Studies in Arts & Humanities produced by Dublin Business School, where I once taught screenwriting in the Arts & Media Department.

Crime Scene

I pull the curtain back, the day ending
to a dull turquoise above the rooftops
of the neighbours’ houses on the square,
the lined sentinels of the bins by their gates
that seem to stand in watch recording us.
The streetlights flicker on, one by one,
the hoods of the cars in the driveways
a shimmering metallic, the tail of yesterday’s
storm ghosting in the branches above them.
Sometimes I dream there’s a body
buried out there under the cedar tree
beneath the camouflage of autumn leaves
and all our fallen memories. I let the curtain
fall back, passing like a shadow across the brain.
I watch you lying on the bed, half asleep,
no shining light to disturb the eye just
the bulk of things hiding in darkness.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

My intro to 'All the Barbaric Glass' by David Butler (2017)

I was flattered when David Butler asked me to launch his latest collection All the Barbaric Glass last spring. David really is a marvelous poet and I am also a huge admirer of his debut collection Via Crucis - so much so that I wrote to his publisher to congratulate him for publishing it. David manages in his poetry a delicate mix of verbal dexterity, vivid imagery and heartfelt feeling. I recommend his work highly to you if you've not encountered it yet.

For now, here are my introductory remarks on the collection. It can be purchased directly from his publisher Doire Press, who are doing great work in finding - and publishing - original voices in contemporary Irish poetry - including, of course, David Butler himself.

A Question at the Shoreline: ‘All the Barbaric Glass’ by David Butler

All the Barbaric Glass was launched at the Irish Writers’ Centre, Dublin, on 23rd March 2017.

The opening lines of the first poem, ‘Breaking’, of David Butler’s second collection, All the Barbaric Glass, acts as a statement of intent for the work, one which he steadfastly adheres to throughout:

                        There are times you need
                        to step outside of colloquy;                
                        to mute the looping newsfeed,
                        the tinnitus of the immediate.

This is a collection that consciously steps beyond ‘the newsfeed’, the constant information thrown at us both in daily life and in the online sphere. That world occasional encroaches on this mission in certain stray moments, but David resolutely stays the course to give us something beyond mere reportage or internet chatter.

The striking imagery of the collection reminds us that this work exists at a boundary, most obviously, that of the physical landscape of the shoreline, the place between land and sea. The shoreline is a very real and concrete location throughout the poems, but subtly reaches the level of metaphor also, representing as it does so the space between life and death, loss and love found, the solid ground of the present and the less certain waters of past and future.

This notion of the blurring of boundaries is heightened also by the fact that many poems take place in the gloaming, the dusk-light, that liminal space between day and night, becoming the shadowland of the poets inner, self-questioning thoughts.  The passage of time is marked out through these scenes as when a young child finds a dogfish washed up on the beach and the poet observes:

                                                            ...Small wonder
the child with bucket stands and stares
                        and starts to hear the song of sand;
                        the whisper in the hourglass.

Such philosophical preoccupations are threaded throughout the work but there are also more emotionally direct pieces, most particularly those about his father and late mother, such as ‘Death Watch’, ‘Watcher’, and ‘Family Album’. His father’s descent into Alzheimer’s is not just observed, but observed closely and felt to the core. In the poem ‘Father’, David takes us far beyond cold statistics or even, indeed, the powerful testimony of loved ones seen on a segment on the TV news, to a fully articulated statement that captures the heart-breaking reality of the condition as experienced by both the father suffering it and the son’s efforts to try to understand it:

                        What unsigned city is it you wake in,
                        featureless, or with such altered features
                        the streets are not familiar, or if, with
                        shifting familiarity, like dreamscapes
                        you wake from?

The autumnal/wintry setting that pervades the collection also seems to suggest that the work exists in the wake of such loss and questioning, where we view the shoreline differently again – not just as haunting but as one now ‘haunted’ by personal grief.

It should be obvious by now how beautifully written these poems are. However, this isn’t achieved through a relaxed, easy lyricism but rather a starkly elegant one. There is an exactness and precision to these poems, an angular beauty, we might say, somewhat reminiscent of the that most descriptively rigorous of Irish poets, Thomas Kinsella. Take these lines from ‘Correspondence’:

                                                There are more
                        tongues here than in a metropolis
                        gorse and cowslip and insect
                        all flash their intimate semaphore;
                        a corncrake croaks Morse; while a skylark
                        hoisted high as radio-mast,
                        is twittering its incessant machine-code

It is this sense of rigour which offers a controlled, formal elegance to the language, the observational accuracy perhaps reflecting David’s studies in engineering at university. There is an eye to detail, as ‘Correspondence’ shows, that other writers may well miss.

However, there are also moments of counterpoint placed in the lattice of such a grief-work, where splashes of colour interrupt the wintry shoreline scenes and present their own vivid reality. In ‘Grand Bizarre, Istanbul’

                        Suddenly the senses are ablaze: scent
                        has tumbled into an Aladdin’s cave
                        that illuminates the throve of memory...

while in ‘Mellifont Abbey’, bees

...fumble inside auricular lilies          
drunk on summer’s insistent song.

At the same time, the contemporary world of the ‘looping newsfeed’ and internet babble breaks through on occasion (as it must), impinging on the other reflections of natural setting. Yet found amid this ‘tinnitus’ is more important news, news that matters and captured in the vision of “all the suitcases, empty as grief / that bob on the Aegean...” bringing us closer to the scene, however briefly, of distant calamity.

To end, I just wanted to note something I only fully appreciated on a second reading of All the Barbaric Glass and one that strikes me as important and central to this books appeal. That thing is the presence of the question mark throughout these poems. So often when poets ‘question’ (especially these days) they are questioning others in accusatory tones for their social or political ineptitude, their incompetence, faults and lack. The ‘other’, in this sense, is always an easy target for lazy vitriol.

Here, though, the questions are those asked of oneself, offering a form of self-reflection and self-questioning that, in the end, is a method of self-interrogation that leaves no place to hide for the poet in these poems. This is not, in the end, a collection that offers easy resolution or explicit consolation, though nor is it one lacking in humanity or tentative hope.

The last two poems of the book demonstrate this unerring honesty. In ‘The Injunction’, the poet remembers the Deutsche Grammophon records his father would play on the old record player in the living room when he was a child, and how: “Still it reverberates / like a paternal caveat: /the cough of the stylus defluffed; / the circuitry clearing its throat; / the expectant static...” In the beautifully strange, and slightly chilling, final poem ‘Restless’ two lovers look out onto the sea as they walk the shoreline. She imagines she spies a body bobbing in the surf, just beyond the rocks. They peer out together, more alert now. He questions her assertion, then responds:

                        It’s not, I say again, less sure.
                        Less sure of myself, too
                        and of us,
                        with the sea and wind and world enormous about us.

March 2017


Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Meeting the Poet - memoir

In late 1999 I co-edited (with Theo Dorgan) the anthology Watching the River Flow: A Century in Irish Poetry. In part, we funded the book by making available a limited edition of copies signed by the ten section editors. In January 2000, I was fortunate enough to go to Thomas Kinsella's home in County Wicklow to get him to sign these copies. It is always difficult to say who your favourite poet is, but in my case Kinsella - at his best - always comes top of that list. As you might expect, I decided to detail our encounter though with no sense that this meeting was as special to Kinsella as it was to me. Here is the piece I wrote, a few years after the fact. I'm happy to say that at nearly 90, Tom Kinsella is still going strong and creating wonderful work and is receiving much deserved (extra) attention in recent years.

Meeting the Poet

Love, it is certain, continues till we fail,
Whenever (with your forgiveness) that may be...

                                                                        ‘Phoenix Park’

As we bumped over a pothole the car made a sudden adjustment veering momentarily off the road. I turned away from the window. My girlfriend, Paola, was driving. She licked the paper of a roll-up which she held in her left hand, then glanced at me, a smile flickering across her lips.

“So, what’s he like? This Thomas what’s-his-name?”

I recovered the lighter from the floor and leaned over to light her cigarette. “Very intimidating by all accounts.”

Paola inhaled, held the smoke in her lungs for a moment, then exhaled. “Great. At least he lives somewhere remote.”

We drove deeper into the mountains. Beyond the rain-streaked window, I saw a burnt-out car rusting on the hillside. The sky had grown heavy with rain cloud, the slate bowl of the sky fringed by bronze that was reflected on the surface of the lake down below us in the valley. It seemed like the perfect stage for a Kinsella poem: an ancient landscape with its primal weather; the ochre of the decaying car lying amongst the granite boulders scattered on the mountainside by retreating glaciers.

In the boot of the Daihatsu Charade, bubble-wrapped and boxed, were special editions of a poetry anthology on which I had worked – with Theo Dorgan – as general editor. We had managed to get the signatures of the nine other section editors, but Thomas Kinsella had proved elusive. He had recently returned from a visit to America and was reluctant to travel to Dublin. I volunteered to go to his house in Wicklow to make the task as painless as possible – or, perhaps more truthfully, that I would get to meet him.


The Kinsellas’ house was hidden from the narrow country road by a wall of oak and hazel and pinned in from behind by the steep incline of a large hill, rainwater spilling down its side in white threads that gathered in a stream at its base. As I lifted the dead weight of the box of books from the boot of the car, a woman in her early seventies emerged from the porch with a wry smile. She introduced herself to us as Eleanor. It was a peculiar feeling seeing her standing there in front of the old farmhouse in flesh and blood. She had been frozen in my imagination as the younger woman in the poem ‘Phoenix Park’ who lay “brilliant with illness, behind glass”.

That poem had been written long before, but I had heard she had been ill again for many years. I was surprised by her skittery vitality as she darted to the boot and lifted the smaller, second box. I followed her into the large, open-plan living room and placed the box onto the mahogany table at its centre. She joked that Tom was in his garret and would be down shortly, then whisked Paola away to help her make lunch.

I stood in the room for a time alone in the gloom of rain-light that seeped in from a window, which stretched almost the entire length of the gable. Above me were exposed rafters and the vault of the ceiling. Along the walls bookcases, and a stark ink drawing of a black crow, an illustration by Louis le Brocquy from The Táin. On the opposite wall there was a Navaho wall hanging, its intricate pattern of earthen-coloured lines reminding me, strangely, of a schematic for an electronic circuit board.

As I began to take the books from the boxes a man appeared in the doorway, instantly recognisable from the photograph on the back of the Collected Poems: the thick glasses and grey beard, “the dry, down-turning mouth” on which one could never imagine a smile forming. I was surprised, though, by Kinsella’s physical size as he stood there in a leather waistcoat. The rumours of his decline seemed premature. He held out his hand and simply introduced himself as Tom, then sat down at the table. It appeared he wasn’t a man interested in small talk.

I opened the first book on the title page. He took an elegant silver-nibbed pen from his inside pocket and signed, with total concentration, in a spiky hand. There was an awkward pause before I opened the next one and he signed again. We continued in this ritual for perhaps half an hour, the silence of the room punctured only by the sound of rain tapping on the window and the occasional laughter that echoed down the hallway from the kitchen.

Just as Tom had finished signing the last book, Eleanor craned her head around the doorframe and announced cheerily that lunch was ready. Tom seemed a little surprised that I was being invited to stay. As I gathered up the books and put them back into the box, I was overcome with the need to tell him that it was reading his poem ‘Mirror in February’ in school that really got me interested in poetry. I realised I may not have another chance so I said, “If it hadn’t been for ‘Mirror in February’ I’d probably be doing something different with my life. It’s the poem that made me want to write.”

After the minutes of rain measured silence I thought my confession must have sounded ridiculous, all the practiced eloquence in the car on the way to this encounter falling apart into a blurted platitude. He stood back with what seemed like genuine surprise, and smiled, “Go way. Really. Tell me.” He waited expectant for me to provide a bigger explanation. Despite having read most of his work, I suddenly felt self-conscious and tongue-tied, as though the weight of posterity on me was too great in that room. I could only muster, “It was the first poem I encountered that was written from a world I recognised.”

As we stood there beside the imposing table, he seemed to relax a little, began to discuss the choices certain editors had made. This had been a difficult part of the process of putting the book together. Theo and I had wanted all the editors to meet up but because the logistical difficulties involved, we decided to send lists around to each so there was no overlap in poems, or over-representation of a given poet.

Tom had chosen to make his selection from the 1930s. He spoke about the failure of Irish poets to grasp modernism. Despite his abrasiveness, at times, on the subject, I detected a sense of isolation on his behalf. No Irish poet had embraced elements of the Modernists more than Kinsella and his profile, it seemed to me at least, had suffered as a consequence due to his work's apparent experimentalism and ‘difficulty’. 

He grew silent for a moment, then mentioned how he had grappled with whether to select anything by Brian Coffey. He put it to me bluntly: “Do you think I should’ve included him?”

I hadn’t expected that. Again, I had a chance to say something incisive, make an impression on my poetic mentor. But I’d never read Coffey and knew for some reason that to admit as much would meet with his disappointment, or perhaps even disapproval. I answered with an attempt at authority: “Well, some of his work is quite interesting, but I think your choice of Devlin was better.”

He nodded. I suspected my opinion didn’t matter to him, but it was surprisingly generous gesture to pretend that it did. 

At that moment Eleanor reappeared in the doorway. I was relieved that my knowledge would not be tested any further through more discussion. Tom and I followed her into the kitchen where we found Paola sitting at the pine table with a relaxed smile, and a mug of tea in her hand.


 As we drove home in the darkness, Paola and I were quiet. I thought of the car out there somewhere in the darkness, rusting a little more in the rain, the boulders still fixed where they had come to rest so long ago, infinitesimally more weathered and rounded. In a way, it was an apt image for the encounter with the poet; his solemn work with the hint of something ancient and immoveable; my dislocation in such a landscape; my fumbling in his formidable presence.

            There was the poem I wished I had talked to him about: a poem about Eleanor, sick in a hospital in the Phoenix Park. Over lunch all four of us had talked for several hours about their time in America and, at Tom’s insistence, religion, a topic that seemed to fascinate him. (I was a semi-practicing Buddhist at the time.) Then, sitting around the table by the bright pink Aga stove, Eleanor then told us about an illness which left her in a state of near-paralysis for many years. After a time, she had recovered unexpectedly and completely.

I thought of all Tom’s probings and doubts as we sat there in the bright, airy space drinking tea. I remembered the Navaho rug in the dark living room, its coloured grids and pattern of connections – that phrase in ‘Phoenix Park’ about “the tissue of order”. But the poem was about more than order. It attempts to answer the question: “What was in your thoughts… saying, after a while, / I write you nothing, no love songs, anymore?”

 As we left the Kinsella’s house in the twilight, Eleanor and Tom stood in the bell of porch-light waving us off. Eleanor had told us to call in again if we were in the area. I knew we wouldn’t – or I wouldn’t have the courage.

The lights of Dublin spread out before us as Paola and I descended from the foothills towards the city, the bay a dark entrance scooped out of the grid of streetlights and housing estates. In the boot of the car, two boxes of books signed and ready to be delivered into the world. I had finally met the poet who first gave me the shock of excitement that words on the page can make as they struggle to “elicit order from experience.”  

But it was the question in the poem that drew my attention again. Like the poet and his wife in ‘Phoenix Park’, Paola and I had also made a journey before a departure. As we pulled up outside our flat in Mountpleasant Square, the rain finally eased. Paola opened the hall door for me as I carried the boxes up the narrow staircase, then placed them on the floor beside all the other boxes that were stacked about the room – separately labelled and divided in piles.

Soon, Tom and Eleanor would also pack up their life in Wicklow and leave that primal place to return to their second home in Philadelphia, both now seeming to exist as real people in my memory, but also, somehow, mythic figures frozen in a frieze in the porchlight - 'brilliant behind glass'.

Galway, 2004

Revised February 2018

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

'The Crossing' - recent poem

I was asked to contribute a poem to an anthology entitled Noble Dissent (Beautiful Dragons Collaborations, 2017) which challenged the contributors a write a piece about an historical figure who fit the description of the title. Just prior to the request, I had watched Peter Ackroyd's brilliant BBC documentary series on the Romantic Poets and was particularly drawn to Wordsworth's experience of the French Revolution and the crushing sense of disappointment he felt in its aftermath. I can't help but wonder if the resulting piece somewhat strayed from the brief as intended (you can decide for yourself) but it was, nonetheless, a fascinating subject to approach. For those interested in the result, here's the poem: 

The Crossing

The earthquake is not satisfied at once
And in this way I wrought upon myself,
Until I seemed to hear a voice that cried,
"Sleep no more."

                       William Wordsworth, Prelude, Book X 

He arrives by carriage to the port of Calais, dismounts
and gets ready to depart with a ruptured longing.
What was it he was escaping from? – the cost of love
or the cost of terror, Annette somewhere else without him,
their daughter barely supping at her breast, oblivious
to the horror unfolding around her. Why did he flee
both Ideal and family? The question must be asked...
He had come with such great hope, yet found instead
a great despair, the cobbled street he so recently walked
now blood-stained and foul; Robespierre and the myriad
dead, their guilt consigning them to the will of the guillotine…
Such terrible things he has seen as the tricolours flutter
in the bright morning air above the hotel, patisserie and bar:
liberté, egalité, fraternité… but what of love? 
Was he, William, fool to imagine it differently, that such
beauty and nobility of spirit might so swiftly turn to peril,
the things he has witnessed here too much to carry?
Instead he holds two small cases and a ticket to England,
takes a step forward onto the gangway of the ship,
its sails readied and set to deliver him home
to all he has known, awaiting his servile return.
One day, he understands that he must write of this –
to try, at least, explain to Annette and their daughter
how it was he came to fail them.

Noel Duffy

Monday, October 30, 2017

John Milton - Sonnet 23

John Milton wrote this poem to his wife Katherine after her death and after his blindness had deprived him of an image of her face. It's truly quite heartbreaking, especially the last line as he wakes from his dream reverie of her to face again the blackness of his waking sight. No further words can express the sadness of this beyond the poem itself.

Sonnet 23

Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave,
Whom Jove's great song to her glad husband gave,
Rescu'd from death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom wash'd from spot of child-bed taint
Purification in the old Law did save,
And such as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin'd
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin'd,
I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night.


I was unaware of this poem till I saw/heard it on Amando Iannucci's truly excellent documentary about Milton from 2009. It is often commented that Satan, not God, gets all the best lines in Paradise Lost, but my one quibble with the documentary is at some point the presenter quotes lines from God to (I think) Adam and characterises these as drab and gnomic. I think he missed their significance as they are the most profound and subtle expression of the bestowing of 'free-will' on humanity by the 'deity' found anywhere in English language literature. You can make up your own mind. Here's the documentary.