Frank Ormsby, Ireland's new Professor of Poetry: ‘I like poems without pomposity or pretentiousness’
A Q&A with Ireland’s new Professor of Poetry by Reading Ireland editor Adrienne Leavy
Frank Ormsby: “I am a man in a hurry. I have diabetes type 2 and Parkinson’s and I know that the diseases are potentially fatal. I must have a sense, however deeply buried poetry is in there, that my time is limited.” Photograph: Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives Boston
How did you first get involved in writing poetry?
When I was 10 or 11, a teacher set us writing poems for a competition at Enniskillen Show. I won a second prize with a poem about a dog or a dogfight. The challenge of constructing quatrains and finding rhymes and solving the problem of getting the syllable count right in each line must have triggered something in me. Pattern and music. I went on to write imitations of the patriotic verse in a magazine called Ireland’s Own and by the time I had entered St Michael’s College, Enniskillen, I was already filling small notebooks with verse. Very little of this early stuff has survived.
How important was Seamus Heaney to you in your development as a poet?
When I came to Queen’s as an undergraduate in 1966, the year of Death of a Naturalist and Heaney’s first year as a lecturer in the English department, I came across his poems (and those of Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and James Simmons) in Harry Chambers’ magazine Phoenix.
When Simmons published my first poem in The Honest Ulsterman (February 1969), he described it accurately as “pastiche of Heaney”. After it appeared, Heaney took me aside and invited me to join the writers’ group which at that time met in the English department. On the same day, Heaney introduced me to Michael Foley on the steps of the Students’ Union. Simmons had asked Foley to take over the editing of The Honest Ulsterman. Foley was willing to do so provided he had someone to help. I was that helper. I am recording this by way of illustrating Heaney’s dynamic presence at this time and his significance to me in all sorts of things.
In addition, of course, his poetry opened up the subject matter of rural Ireland, reinforcing and extending the work of Kavanagh and Montague. He was a towering figure in Irish poetry for decades. The number of critical studies of his work and the appearance of his books on university syllabuses all over the world attest to his popularity and influence.
Aside from Heaney, I would imagine that John Hewitt is also an important influence on your work. You edited The Collected Poems of John Hewitt, a book which Wes Davis praises as “the standard edition of that fundamental poet of cultural alienation in the North”. Can you speak a little about what Hewitt’s work means to you?
I was not an admirer of Hewitt from the start. When he privately published a pamphlet of poems called An Ulster reckoning in 1971, he quoted, in the foreword, John Montague’s description of his as “the first (and the last) deliberately Ulster Protestant Poet. That designation carries a heavy obligation these days.” Hewitt sent a review copy to The Honest Ulsterman with a note to the effect that he expected the usual dismissive mention. My review in The Honest Ulsterman No 29, July/August 1971 comments: “Unfortunately it is not difficult to give second rate poetry a spurious importance by playing this sort of game – let’s call it the Dilemma of the Ulster Protestant Poet or Look! I’ve got a spilt identity”. Hewitt has played this game for a long time” – there were two pages of this. It was brutal then and it is brutal now.
Hewitt wrote to me from Coventry, where he was curator of the Herbert Art Gallery. The letter was dignified and angry and he struck a satirical note, advising me to develop a more effective “hatchet-man” style by imitating models such as William Hazlitt. Detecting an element of hurt in the letter, I wrote an apology to Hewitt, which was accepted. Shortly after this, he retired from the Herbert Gallery and returned to Belfast. Michael Longley introduced me to him at the Festival Club on February 9th, 1972 after I had taken part in a reading with Michael Foley, Paul Muldoon and William Peskett at the Students’ Union. Back in Belfast, Hewitt became a father figure to several generations of poets and won honours galore. He quarried new collections from his notebooks, revising poems from as far back as the Forties. After our initial skirmish, we settled down and developed a friendship. I found him gruff and kindly, always ready to give judicious praise.
It is difficult to say (I think) whether Hewitt influenced my poems – unless it be in the use of traditional forms, a fondness for short poems and, occasionally, a four-square quality. Hewitt certainly detected a poetic affinity. My diaries for the 1970s tell me that when the Arts Council commissioned a set of poster poems, Hewitt was particularly enthusiastic about my collaboration with the artist John Middleton – “I like your poem very much and have it hung in the porch where I can see it daily”. During a visit I made to his house in Stockman’s Lane in October 1973, he told me that my poetry appealed to him more than that of any Ulster poet “currently writing”. Hewitt was not given to overstatement. I admired his nature poems and lyric poems generally. When Michael Longley and I edited Hewitt’s Selected Poems (2001), I think both of us were surprised by the rediscovery of a considerable lyric poet.
How do you decide on a poem’s form? At what point in composing do you decide on shape?
Poems often suggest themselves, as it were, in an opening line in the poet’s head and the line often has a particular rhythm which is then likely to become the rhythm of the poem. So, by the end of the first verse, I am likely to have a sense of whether the poem will be in free verse, blank verse, couplets, quatrains, or whatever. If the poem itself suggests form and shape, it is usually “better” than a poem in which the poet imposes a form.
A connection to place is very important in your poetry, and your rural upbringing in Fermanagh features in much of your work, beginning with your first collection, A Store of Candles (1977). This preoccupation with the local seems more prevalent in the work of Northern Irish poets than in the work of Southern poets (with the exception of Patrick Kavanagh). I’m thinking specifically about poets such as Louis MacNeice, John Montague and Seamus Heaney. Would you agree with this assessment or am I making too broad an assumption?
The local is a starting point for the Southern poet as much as it for the Northerner. I notice this when I read newspaper and magazine contributions by young Southerners and register the local fidelities. The Troubles, however, have given Northern poets a sharper sense of place. This is likely to persist as the bodies of the Disappeared continue to be raised from bogland and other landscapes. The landscape is not, as Hewitt remarks, “to be read as pastoral again”.
Your second volume, A Northern Spring (1986), includes a section of 36 poems about the American GIs who were stationed in Fermanagh ahead of the Normandy landings in 1944. Your close friend Michael Longley also writes often on war, though in his case his poems center on his father’s experience in the first World War. What prompted you to aesthetically explore this chapter in Northern Ireland’s history, and to what extent did the backdrop of the Troubles influence the creation of these poems?
We lived on the periphery of the Necarne Castle or Castle Irvine estate, near the village of Irvinestown, Co Fermanagh. During World War II there had been an American hospital camp in the woods and when I was a boy there were still a couple of air-raid shelters (see The Air Raid Shelter in a A Store of Candles). I was born in 1947 and had no direct memories of the American presence, but the GIs related particularly well to the nationalist community and there were numerous stories about them.
A Northern Spring is an attempt to imagine their lives and experiences. I have given them voices in the style of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. The sequence is about the fate of the universal soldier who has his future taken from him. The Troubles are to the fore in some of these poems, a significant undercurrent in others. The use of dramatic monologue is intended to strengthen our sense of the soldiers as individuals at a time when soldiers and policemen in the North of Ireland were being dehumanised as “legitimate targets”.
I saw Apples, Normandy, 1944 as a poem about the pressure of expectation on artists to produce “relevant” work about the Troubles and the obligation of the artists to maintain their independence and follow the dictates of their art. Soldier Bathing moves from Lough Melvin in Co Fermanagh to Lucifer’s War in heaven and the “Let there be light” moment. The title is borrowed from a well-known WWII poem by FT Prince. The images that run through Maimed Civilians, Isigny would be very familiar to anyone who had heard about or seen photographs of various atrocities in the North and the stunning capacity for recovery shown by the casualties.
In your poem The Heart from your third collection, The Ghost Train (1995), you describe Belfast as a city that “aspires to be the capital of bereavement”. Your recent poetry celebrates the city’s rejuvenation. How difficult was it to write poetry about the Troubles?
It was easy enough, indeed all too easy to write about the Troubles. It was more difficult to allow the material to find its “imaginative depth” (as Michael Longley put it) and write the poems with a weight appropriate to the seriousness of the subject. My anthology A Rage for Order: Poetry of the Northern Troubles did not appear until 1992, almost 25 years after the Troubles began, by which time poets had absorbed the subject – not entirely, of course, but sufficiently to approach the topic thoughtfully and with authority.
Your father’s stroke and early death cast a long shadow over your poetry. In Goat’s Milk: New and Selected Poems (2015), the poems about his death are particularly moving. Do you find the experience of writing about your father to be cathartic?
Cathartic, yes. He presides over the poems and even answering this question brings a familiar image of him. White hair, cap, walking stick. He is almost always seated and silent but somehow manages to remain an authority figure. We will take a short walk, during which he will keep one hand on my shoulder. My mother will give him an insulin injection and I will feed him porridge with a spoon.
You were also an English teacher and later head of the English Department at one of Belfast’s leading schools, The Royal Belfast Academical Institution. I believe you taught there from 1971 until your retirement in 2010. Can you speak a little about your career as an educator?
Royal Belfast Academical Institution (also known as RBAI... and Inst) is a Boy’s grammar school located in the centre of Belfast. It is essentially a Protestant school but prides itself on being open to pupils of all denominations. It makes a point of not enquiring into the religious background of staff or pupils. My professional life as a teacher was spent there. I was an assistant teacher of English from 1971 to 1976 and head master of the English fepartment from 1976 to 2010. The school was founded to be the local university, which explains the head master. i inherited humanities, as it were, and was also head of history and geography, though in name only.
The school might be described as a boys’ scientific and mathematical academy but it did have a literary tradition. Sir Samuel Ferguson was a pupil there, as was William Drennan, the United Irishman. The Edwardian novelist Forrest Reid was another pupil, more recently the poets Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. The poets Robert Johnstone and William Peskett were educated at Inst. John Hewitt was a pupil there for one year, circa 1919. I realise that this answer has become a survey but I want to mention three other interesting figures – the painter Paul Henry, Dr William Neilson, head master of the classical school, who taught Irish and, in 1808, published an Irish Grammar, and the poet Charles Reavy, poet, translator and founder of the Olympia Press.
I loved teaching literature every working day but probably had more impact simply as a poet on the staff. A poet who managed a school hockey team! I’m speculating that this normalised poets and poetry in some way.
There were opportunities to introduce classes to contemporary Irish writers – Flann O’Brien was a great hit. I taught the poetry of Yeats, MacNeice, Kavanagh, Heaney, Longley, Mahon, Muldoon and Carson and, occasionally, my own poems. By the way, Adrienne, do you know what the Tollund Man’s full name is? Pete Brown. And that the opening line of Heaney’s Mid-Term Break is “I sat all morning in the college sick bay” and that “ambition was Macbeth’s athlete’s foot”?
Your current collection, The Darkness of Snow, contains 14 poems about your experience with Parkinson’s. I’m wondering if you are familiar with Susan Sontag’s book, Illness as Metaphor, in which she argues that the clearest way of thinking about disease is without recourse to metaphor. Many writers disagree with her thesis, arguing that metaphor and other types of symbolic language help afflicted people form meaning out of their experiences. What are your thoughts on this?
I haven’t read Susan Sontag’s book yet, so I don’t feel in a position to comment on it. I have had a sense of metaphor in action. When I walk into a room, there is a second in the course of which I see coats, cushions, clocks, etc. as people but they resume, almost immediately, their own shapes. I can only assume that what happens is caused by medication.
You have become much more prolific in your writing since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Would you attribute this new burst of creativity to the fact that you are now retired and have more time to devote to writing or are there other factors also at play?
Retirement has played a significant part. It used to take me nine years to get a book together, now it takes two. I think medication plays some part in this. Just as it can make your mind wander, it can also encourage feats of concentration that can be useful when you are trying to finish a recalcitrant poem. Furthermore, I am a man in a hurry. I have diabetes type 2 and Parkinson’s and have had the experience of being taken suddenly into hospital and I know that the diseases are potentially fatal. From that point on, I am in a hurry. I feel free but psychologically I must have a sense, however deeply buried poetry is in there, that my time is limited and that I must get the poems on to paper whatever. All this is speculation and even perhaps a little ridiculous.
You were the editor of The Honest Ulsterman from 1969 to 1989. How did the poet and editor in you work together in shaping the magazine? Also, were you surprised how influential the magazine became?
There was no tension between the poet and the editor! I think I had a kind of throwaway editing style and was lucky to be able to call on an enviable group of contributors. I would visit The Eglantine Inn on the way home from RBAI. Paul Muldoon would be there after a day at the BBC, Ciaran and Deirdre Carson and John Morrow would arrive from the Arts Council and others might appear – painters, teachers, musicians, individuals such as Ted Hickey, Keeper of Art at the Ulster Museum, and Conor Macauley, my colleague at RBAI. The poets often brought new stuff and I often left with a few pages filled in the next issue of the magazine. There was a personal element in all this that kept the potential drudgery of editing at bay. I dealt with the printers and booksellers and my first wife Molly helped with parcelling and mailings.
Add the names of terrific poetry critics such as Edna Longley and Michael Allen and the provocative, splenetic, opinionated columnist, Jude the Obscure. Add the contribution of the non-Irish poets such as Gavin Ewart and Carol Rumens. Editing The Honest Ulsterman was, for me, one of the excitements of the literary life in Belfast from, roughly, 1968 to 1988.
Was I surprised at how influential the magazine became? It is difficult for me to answer this because I had very little sense of the nature of the influence. The magazine helped to keep poetry and therefore the peacetime values of poetry alive for almost the entire duration of the Troubles. It published the earliest writing of a formidable group of writers, such as Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Michael Foley, John Morrow, Bernard MacLaverty, Tom Paulin, Peter McDonald, Medbh McGuckian. The pamphlet press, Ulsterman Publications, published the work of Heaney, Longley, Mahon and Simmons, as well as Muldoon, Carson and company, establishing a poetic continuity.
Yes, I suppose these activities and achievements constitute influence and that I shouldn’t be surprised at this. I was surprised at the magazine’s capacity to recover its freshness after periods in the doldrums but this statement may be as much about me as it is about the magazine!
During a previous conversation you told me that after The Darkness of Snow was published Dr Kath MacDonald, a senior lecturer in the nursing division at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, contacted you to ask permission to use your Parkinson’s poems as teaching aids in the nursing program. It’s rare for poetry to achieve such a practical impact outside the artistic sphere. Are you aware how the poems have been received by the nursing students?
After I gave a reading in the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh, Dr Kath MacDonald asked for permission to use the Parkinson’s poems as teaching aids in the nursing program. This approach was marvelously unexpected and led to a couple of workshops with the pupils studying neurological diseases and the staff who taught them. The emphasis was on the need to develop empathy skills, so literature fitted in. The students studied a number of appropriate poems and wrote haiku poems embodying forms of empathy.
I wrote an article for the Journal of Nursing Research and have been receiving offers ever since from nursing organisations – to chair panel discussions, to deliver key-note speeches, to lead research programmes. All the offers are addressed to Doctor” Ormsby! To speak, seriously, it seems to be the case that the arts have a role to fulfil in the treatment of diseases like Parkinson’s. My poems are still being used in Queen Margaret University and artistic activities such as poetry, dance, music are being taken seriously as forms of treatment, not just of Parkinson’s disease.
Section iii of The Darkness of Snow is a series of 26 ekphrastic poems (poems based on paintings). The paintings are all by Irish impressionist artists based in Normandy, Brittany and Belgium at the end of the 19th century, including John Lavery, Walter Osborne and Nathaniel Hone. An example from this series is The Widow by Frank O’Meara (1853-1888). So our readers can get a sense of what an ekphrastic poem is like we have included an image of the painting on which the poem is based below.
Frank O’Meara: The Widow
The widow walks by the river, in black and alone, the wind undoing her veil. She is hanging
on nobody’s arm, seems to stand free
of family and friends. Now she is here,
will she test herself against the first loneliness?
Or adjust to the bereavement space
in which she is the chief mourner?
Intense memory has closed her eyes.
She wants a river in her grief and bare trees
and little low islands, a geography of loss, a local scene
where distances conflict and horizons give back nothing.
She is marked, if she allows it, a widow for life.
Monsieur O’Mara, a painter with a taste
For the lacrimae rerum, an aficionado of Autumn and Winter,
Has asked her to pose. He has taken her arm
courteously and complicated her sadness.
He will complicate it again with the finished portrait.
The American poet Mary Jo Bang has described her approach to writing ekphrastic poems thus: “I am taking an existing work of art and rewriting over it. I’m imposing a new narrative on it, one that is partially suggested by the artwork itself and partially by something that comes from within. Sometimes that thing is an autobiographical moment, sometimes it’s a larger concern, social or political or intellectual.” Can you comment on your approach to writing this kind of poem?
The approach to the subject here is typical of the approach in most of the other poems. I identify closely with the central character and enjoyed writing these poems because they often took their own direction as I wrote. The widow is a vulnerable loner who has a choice to make about her future. She will either retreat into her widowhood or resist it. The painter will play a part in this. It is implied, I think, that the painter is drawn to her, not only as a subject for a painting, but also as a woman, which will complicate the decision she must make.
“He has taken her arm” sets up a deliberate contrast with “she is hanging/on nobody’s arm’” earlier in the poem. For me, one of the unexpected elements in the poem was the landscape fantasy, me imagining her imagining, a kind of backcloth to her grief. The questions in the poem create the illusion that the observer is speculating and is not omniscient. I imagine – I hope – that if this poem were subjected to group discussion, it would yield more. O’Meara’s paintings contain a sombre element which appeals to me without being overwhelming. One autumn-lover speaks to another, as it were.
This poem includes a Latin phrase, lacrimae rerum, meaning “tears of things,” from Book 1 of the Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil. The phrase fits nicely in the poem and I am wondering if Virgil’s work in general has influenced your poetry?
If Virgil is an influence on my poems, the influence is so oblique that I cannot detect it. My masters course at Queen’s University, Belfast had a component called classical literature in translation, my first extended introduction to the poetry of Homer, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Juvenal, Catullus and other poets. What a course that was! Given the subterranean workings of influence, I don’t rule out Virgil!
You have another collection forthcoming entitled The Rain Barrel. Can you talk about this volume?
The rain barrel of the title is emblematic of life on the farm. It is earthy and dignified, a solid custodian, a focal presence. Like the books which precede it, The Rain Barrel highlights the beauty of the rural background, a beauty that contains also the graves of the Disappeared, buried secretly on the mountain and in bogs. The sense of place is, as always, strong. Rural and urban Northern Ireland both figure prominently. I try to acknowledge and identify with the pain and frustration of the families still waiting for the restoration of bodies. The Rain Barrel is very much in the vein of Goat’s Milk (2015) and The Darkness of Snow (2017) and continues to explore the themes prominent in those collections.
One of the poems in The Rain Barrel is titled After Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa was an early 20th-century Portuguese poet, literary critic and philosopher. What inspired you to write this poem?
I’ve been intending to read Pessoa’s work for a long time and recently finished his Selected Poems, translated by Richard Zenith (Grove Press). Immediately I set out to write an affectionate parody in two parts. The first part was clearly parody (“in a void where there is nothing/nothing becomes everything. That is why my best moments are the everything in the middle of nothing”), but the second part sounded uncannily like a serious poem. I recognised this, as did Michael Longley and Neil Astley without any prompting from me. So the poem came in from the cold and I have placed it at the end of The Rain Barrel.
Can you tell me about your collaboration with musician Anthony Toner? How did The Kiss of Light tour come about?
It is odd to hear yourself say that one of your books has made an impact, but that was Anthony’s response to my second book A Northern Spring (1996) and he would occasionally slip poems from my books into his concerts. When Goat’s Milk appeared in 2017, David Torrans of No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast organised a surprise for Anthony. We were introduced to each other at the interval in one of Anthony’s concerts in the bookstore and had an immediate rapport, personally and through his songs. Our collaboration grew out of that and what I think of as our first culmination is a CD called The Kiss of Light. The title is taken from my Paris honeymoon poem L’Orangerie. I recite nine of my poems on the CD and Anthony plays music prompted by the poems.
We have performed the piece several times, included at the Irish Cultural Institute in Paris. Initially, I had misgivings, fearing that the audience had come to hear the music and endure the poetry. This has not been the case. Our joint performances so far have been warmly, sometimes uproariously received. We don’t try to impose connections but we do draw attention to some common themes. I think the venture has given us creative reassurance. Our mood at the end of the sessions have been one of elation. I like Anthony’s accessible, humane songs and the informality on stage which makes each performance a gig rather than a reading.
How do you see your poetry evolving in the near future? What are you currently working on and what do you hope to work on in the future?
I have very little sense of my poems evolving. If they do, it must be secretly, in the dead of the night. I’m increasingly a devotee of the short poem and will probably have a Small World haiku section in all future collections. It is some time since I edited an anthology and I have several ideas – one of which is to produce a second edition of A Rage for Order: Poetry of the Northern Ireland Troubles.
What is your opinion on the state of Irish poetry today? Are there movements in contemporary poetry that you find notably encouraging or discouraging?
The state of Irish poetry is not a subject to which I devote much thought, but I welcome the blossoming of women’s poetry in the North and I am still excited by the achievements and continuing creativity of the apprentice poets and friends (and their predecessors) who found poetry in Belfast in the 1960s.
What do you want readers to find in your work?
I want them to find the kind of poems I myself enjoy, accessible poems about recognisably everyday subjects treated humorously or with a sort of serious frivolity. The poems would be written in language readily understood but used inventively, with the odd, unexpected flourish. I like the idea of poems that both move readers and make them think, poems without pomposity or pretentiousness.
Frank Ormsby’s inaugural lecture as Ireland Professor of Poetry, The Honest Ulsterman revisited, will take place in January. The Rain Barrel, his new poetry collection, will be published next month by Bloosaxe. This interview first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Reading Ireland which was devoted to writers from the province of Ulster. The winter 2019 issue of Reading Ireland will focus on Dublin writers. To subscribe to Reading Ireland visit readingireland.net