Peter Fallon: the man who brought jazz and pizzazz to Irish poetry
A new collection of essays and poems celebrates poet and editor Peter Fallon. In his contribution, the late Dennis O’Driscoll describes the man who was his ‘first poet’
Peter Fallon, with Moses Hill in Loughcrew. Photograph: Suella Holland/The Gallery Press
The late Dennis O’Driscoll. Photograph: Karl Smyth
Peter Fallon was my first poet – the first I met, the first I heard read poems in public. When I moved to Dublin in 1970, unlettered in the ways of the poetry world, Peter (barely three years my elder) was already well on his way to becoming a man of letters. He was rejuvenating and regenerating the art, dusting it off, stirring it up with the whirlwind stamina of a young Yeats or Pound.
His dashing dress code and exuberant spillage of ink-black hair lent him an aura that was as mystical as it was modish. Peter’s energising omnipresence lit a neon torch for a generation that had had its fill of staidness and – appetite freshly whetted by Lunch Poems and Howl, by the Beat school and the Liverpool Poets – was hungry for an Irish poetry with more pizzazz, more jazz, one likelier to appeal to the metalhead music fan than the egghead academic. He expanded Ireland’s poetry constituency, making the art accessible to an audience that had felt excluded from this “elitist” pursuit.
For all his associations with pop poetry and Beat poetry, Peter’s poems were neither flared nor tie-dyed. Solitary is the final word in his accomplished first collection, Among the Walls (1971), and the book as a whole – containing poems written for the page rather than performance – is the work of a poet seriously committed to his art.
That his dedication had yielded early dividends was evident by the time his third collection, The First Affair (1974), appeared, its taut, well-crafted poems flourishing both in performance and in print. The development in his work, over so short a period, was as startling as it was impressive. Still only 23, he had found his true voice and his true subject matter had found him.
The move to Meath
Fallon’s life-changing decision, in the 1980s, to transplant The Gallery Press (which he started “in innocence” in 1970) from suburban Rathgar in Dublin to rural Co Meath was audacious. Finding his place there, he is happy to explore, if not explain, local lore and legend. He can be simultaneously respectful and ironical towards folk cures:
my mother would cross
a sty in your eye
and if that didn’t cure it
it wasn’t a sty.
Mole, one of the pair of Fallon poems selected by Seamus Heaney for his anthology Soundings 2 (1974), heralds the splendid imagist to come: “Thalidomide, earth-seal / of muscle, tail a teat / and nose the sound of stone . . .”
Residence in a Loughcrew landscape of passage graves has heightened his sense of what “time” means in that “test of time’ to which all poetry is subjected. The rhythm must be right, the structure watertight, the evocation exact, the metaphor striking, the emotion true.
No doubt Fallon was glad to have escaped the daily eye-contact and street-corner contact with would-be authors. But, apart from the practical benefits a tranquil and isolated poetry place and publishing base would confer, Fallon’s agenda entailed deeper aspirations: “. . . some credible version of a life, and some exciting and memorable expression of that version”.
Such a life would be marked by responsible husbandry of land, neighbourly co- operation, dedication to the art and craft of poetry, and – as editor and publisher – high editorial and production values. His ultimate hope is that both his smallholding and the art of poetry will be the better for his endeavours: “The work and the life at the end of the day both add up to some kind of love affair with a particular place.”