A poet collects his thoughts about his work
In this fascinating essay, Michael O’Loughlin reveals what went through his mind as he looked afresh at 35 years of his poems
Michael O’Loughlin: For me, death is a great editor, stripping away the external trivia and fixing the moment, delivering a charge to the poetic imagination
The poet Paul Celan once wrote that a poem is like a message in a bottle which hopefully will wash up on land some day. I’ve always believed this to be true, that the poem will eventually find its ideal reader. But it probably nudges the process along if you actually put the poem in a book, and put the book on a bookshelf in a bookshop, terrestrial or virtual.
My own lackadaisical approach to publishing was brought home to me a couple of years ago with great force. An academic had written about my work and in gratitude I presented her with a signed copy of an early book, remarking that she probably had it already. But she replied that she did not, having only ever read my work in libraries, it being otherwise unavailable.
Apart from my own laxness, this is also partly due to the fact that with very few exceptions, poetry publishers tend not to republish poetry collections once they go out of print. About this time I approached my publisher about publishing a collection of my new poems, and mentioned this problem. He came with a counter-proposal: why not publish the new book together with all the old ones in a single volume? This seemed a solution but it put me on the spot. The word “collected” has to be avoided at all costs before you reach a venerable age, and last year at a conference on Louis MacNeice, Peter MacDonald remarked to me, apropos of his editing work on MacNeice’s Collected Poems, that no one needs a Complete Poems. And yet, this book is not a Selected either. It is what it says on the cover: a group of poems between two points in time, which happens to contain most of what I have written.
Editing it had special problems because of my working methods. The first problem was, I’ve always seen collections of poetry as having an inner structure, rather than just being a bunch of individual poems. For me the book is a theatre, and reading it should be like attending a coherent performance. This meant that over the years I have left out poems because they didn’t contribute to the narrative. Even the Selected Poems in 1996 excluded some of my own favourites from earlier books for the sake of this principle.
For example, in my first book, Stalingrad : The Street Dictionary, I consciously arranged the poems to express a dramatic situation, with Stalingrad being the citadel, the received cultural values of an Irish childhood in the 1960s, in conflict with the The Street Dictionary, being poems arising from lived urban experience. For this book I have collapsed that structure and just chosen poems from both aspects on an individual basis.
Another hurdle was that I’ve always tried to keep a non-critical attitude to my own poems. Superstitiously, I don’t want to know where they come from, or how. I have always relied completely on inspiration, and some mysteries should be preserved. But this did not prevent me having an idea of what the poem should be. In formal terms my ideal has always been Yeats: “A line will take us hours maybe; Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” Unfortunately it can take years of work on a single poem to achieve that kind of casual utterance.
It is also true, that every poem is the cry of its occasion, as Wallace Steven said, but often that occasion is obscure, or even forgotten. It can be a hybrid occasion, or even outside of time. The poem A Hospital in Amsterdam was 25 years in the making. I wrote the first verse after spending some months with my daughter in a children’s hospital in 1990, and falling in love with antibiotics. Twenty-five years later I walked into a Dublin hospital room where a friend of mine lay dying, and in an instant the 25 years of life in between vanished and the emotion was there again, I was back in that place in the imagination, as if for the first time, so I could write the second and final verse.
What I was looking for were poems which retained the original energy of their inspiration even if I didn’t particularly like them, or even understand them. For me the degree zero of the poem has to be itself. I want it not to rely on external values like home or exile, love or tradition, but to generate values within the poem itself. This means to some extent reinventing the wheel with each poem, and I have been rigourous in excluding poems which borrowed wheels from other poems by myself. So I have excluded poems which too closely resemble their neighbours in language and theme.
Has reception influenced my choice? Yes, inevitably, though it is hard to admit. The medieval cabbalist Isaac Luria pointed out that the text has an outer aspect, and a hidden, inner aspect. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to editing your own texts. A poem about a cliff in Kerry may, for the poet, be always associated with the station cafe in Zurich where you wrote it. A poem that to the poet seems the cornerstone of the collection can be ignored by the reader. The poem that gave you the most satisfaction writing it because of the way it came as a gift, surprised you and showed you the way forward, may seem clumsy and flat to the reader. And vice versa.
I left The Irish Lesson out of the Selected Poems because I thought its subject matter too narrow, and its irony simultaneously too obvious, and too often misunderstood. But the reader has convinced me. Another early poem I dropped from the Selected Poems was Medium. I excluded it because I thought the subject matter too obscure, and the style too experimental and self-consciously hard-edged and urban. But a paper by a couple of Swiss academics made me look at this poem anew, identifying a voice in it that I was tone deaf to, and it has been resurrected.
As the book began to take shape, I could see how the poems were beginning to cluster around the twin nodes of death and displacement. Many of them are elegies in one form or another. For me, death is a great editor, stripping away the external trivia and fixing the moment, delivering a charge to the poetic imagination. The other great muse in the books seemed to me the sense of displacement in all its forms, leaving and returning, exile and migration, in both place and time.
Many of the poems are an attempt to get my bearings. In the 1980s I wrote an essay about the Irish communist leader Frank Ryan, which quotes Robert Musil: “A whole man no longer stood against a whole world, but was a human something moving in a diffuse culture-medium.” This could serve as the motto for this book. If there is drama here, it is that of my own imagination striving to get a grip on the dark matter of Europe (of which Ireland is a part), past and present, with each individual poem a hard-won, fleeting victory.
Finally, on finishing the book, the overwhelming emotions are the inevitable melancholy and frustration familiar to every poet, as you see how little of your lived experience has actually found its way into the poems. It is that ache which gets every poet out of bed in the morning. But for now, the job’s oxo.
We sleep beneath your grandfather’s talith
Fine lamb’s wool striped black and white
A giant barcode to be scanned by god,
The pelt of a fabulous beast.
Little tent, portable temple
It survived Dutch looters and Dublin landlords
To shelter in this Irish night even me
Uncircumsized, and all too often, unwashed.
Your father pinned it to his study wall
A flag without a shield. Eternity’s quilt,
Your grandfather didn’t think he’d need it
When he took the train in Amsterdam.
‘And what,’ he mocked your father,
‘Are they going to murder us all?’
From Poems 1980-2015 by Michael O’Loughlin, which is published by New Island