New chair is a poet in his prime

Thu, Jul 1, 2010, 01:00

The appointment of the new Ireland Professor of Poetry, Harry Clifton, recognises four decades of imagination and an exemplary dedication to poetry, writes GERRY SMYTH

THE IRELAND Chair of Poetry was established in 1998 to mark the award to Seamus Heaney of the Nobel Prize for Literature three years earlier. The chair (or professorship) was defined in quite explicit terms by the Nobel Laureate himself when he declared that “the post is intended to manifest the value of poetry within our cultural and intellectual life”.

As a standard-bearer for those values, the appointment of Harry Clifton as Ireland’s new Professor of Poetry makes for a brilliant choice and one that will be welcomed by his readers, his peers and those of an older generation whose example he followed in his vocation as a poet. He is much-admired and critically acclaimed, and his dedication to that vocation has been exemplary.

There is no doubt that his most recent, and virtuosic, collection, Secular Eden: Paris Notebooks 1994-2004, places him in the front rank of contemporary Irish poetry. However, his reputation is built on an even larger body of work published over almost four decades.

The status and recognition that comes with the chair has been admirably earned. From the start, since his first, precociously adroit poems appeared in the 1970s, his work has shown real substance and assured technique; while the poet himself has always been a quiet and modest presence, keeping his attention on the functions of the imagination and his mind open to the experiences that mattered.

Even in his introductory, apprentice poems it was clear that Clifton was a poet who had set his artistic goals. Those poems achieved a level of accomplishment and formal music that was rare among poets still in the first flush.

When Michael Hartnett reviewed Clifton’s inaugural collection, The Walls of Carthage, in this newspaper in 1978, he declared that he had in his hands the work of a poet who was “here to stay”. While Hartnett discerned certain influences, he also remarked that “the strongest voice of all is that of Harry Clifton”.

His subsequent books unfolded into a strong assembly of themes: issues of identity, the bonds of history, the nature of creativity, the intersections where lives and cultures meet, the uneasiness of the world he dwells in – a world in which, as he has suggested in one of his poems, there are powers “no borders can contain”.

Many of the poems took their impetus from Clifton’s travels and sojourns – up to a few years ago, his life was one of exile and outward journeys – Nigeria, Cambodia, South America, Italy, and 10 years in France that triggered the artistic payload in Paris Notebooks that sets him apart in the contemporary canon.

As exemplified in many of his titles – The Desert Route, Crossing the Apennines, Berlin Suite, Field Hospital, Thailand, 1982– these places became part of the transnational backdrop that added a cosmopolitan, even exotic, flavour to his poetry.

From the Dublin of his coming-of-age to St Augustine’s Carthage and the boulevards of Paris, he has always been a poet on the move, observing and absorbing, and questioning – equally at home in the “country of flux” and the “country of still waters” (The Country of Still Waters).

Pointing to his abiding cultural curiosity, the American poet CK Williams observed in Clifton a poet whose work embraced “so much geography, landscape, cityscape, re-peopled precincts of the imagination, so much human drama and comedy”. There may be high seriousness in the material he chooses as his themes, but the language never lacks surprise.

Clifton once described poetry as an “ambivalent realm” but perhaps more tellingly on another occasion as an “inwardly directed activity”; that said, he has always looked closely at the world and that looking has produced poetry that is allusive, evocative, inventive, interrogative and always richly suggestive in its imagery and observations.

CLIFTON IS NOW A POET in his prime and his lectures as Ireland Professor of Poetry can be anticipated for the contribution they will make to the public understanding of poetry as an essential art and also, indeed, to its value in our cultural and intellectual life.

The Chair of Poetry title is bestowed for three years and the holder is attached for part of a year to each of three universities – Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast – to teach and conduct workshops as well as give public lectures and readings.

Clifton will be the fifth poet to occupy the position and the fascinating diversity of outlook of his predecessors is amply illustrated in The Poet’s Chair: The First Nine Yearsof, an overview collection of the lectures delivered by John Montague, Nuala Ní Dhomhaill and Paul Durcan. These were augmented by Belfast poet Michael Longley, who added further prestige to the position over the past three years.

PICARDYby Harry Clifton

The clouds of Ireland gathered over France —

Flights of swallows, blowing hot and cold

In their own force-fields, and the weightless dance

Of insects before rain. Our life on hold

Looked either way. The chairs, the groaning board

Littered with its aftermaths of feasts

Were dragged indoors. A year or two, a third,

Was added, unaccountably, to the lease

Running out on the garden. Fifteen degrees

On the tapped barometer. We had drifted north

Just sitting there, just talking — cherry trees,

Excuses for a summer, used-up earth,

Our one-step-forward-two-steps-backward advance,

And the clouds of Ireland, gathering over France.

(from Secular Eden, Paris Notebooks 1994-2004.Wake Forest University Press )