‘Macdara Woods was the recording angel of contemporary Irish poetry’
The poet’s ‘search for sense’ may be over but the sense of his poems will long outlive him
Fellow poets have paid tribute to Macdara Woods, whlo died last Friday. Photograph: Frank Miller
Vincent Woods (poet, playwright and broadcaster)
Macdara was a brilliant and passionate poet and a vital presence in the world of Irish literature and the arts for half a century. Quite simply, there was no one like him.
I loved Macdara (no relation, but over the course of decades, a good friend) for his noble engagement with the art and act of poetry; the breadth, freshness, fire and originality of his work; his proud belief in the true value of the poem; his dedicated work as one of the founding editors of Cyphers; his talk at the Patrick Kavanagh seat on the Royal Canal each St Patrick’s Day; the warmth and humour he brought to life; his strong, unflinching belief in the politics of justice and human rights; his love of Russia and the Russian language, Irish and its intricate grammar, Italy, Italian and the life and light of Umbria, where he and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin lived on occasion and helped to run an annual festival of Irish poetry. Macdara linked Ireland to a wide world and was always alert to the best of the international without ever being blind to the danger of superficial cosmopolitanism.
I was honoured to launch Macdara’s last, magnificent collection of poems Music from the Big Tent at the Strokestown Poetry Festival in May 2016, and to hear a frail and very strong Macdara read from that book and sing one of the fine ballad poems it contains. Many of the poems in that book emerged from a period of physical suffering, and their unblinking honesty is matched by an unsentimental, inspirational, open-eyed wonder at the miraculous, complex business of life, love and what I termed in the past Macdara’s take on “the whole kit and caboodle”.
A late poem imagines the days beyond death, the stroll in the Ranelagh Park with the poet gone but ever-present – in Rome, in Rio, in Selskar, leaning on his holly-stick, alert to all and everything, to red rose and butterfly. That’s how I choose to remember Macdara Woods – and I will read and re-read his poems for as long as light allows.
Pat Boran (poet and editor of Dedalus Press)
Names, dates, places, specific rather than general references, and all drawn together by the music of a singular, incantatory voice – Macdara Woods was the recording angel of contemporary Irish poetry.
Shying away from the neat closure of the lyric, instead he gravitated towards linked forms and sequences, dedicating himself to explore the overlap and echo of time and place, the constant and shifting revisions and revelations of memory. Travel, art, wide reading and surprising personal encounters – his is a poetry that embraces detour and diversion, that celebrates the journey rather than any point of arrival.
Astonishingly focused as a writer, as an editor he was open, unfailingly generous and inclusive, always encouraging of a new talent, translating and bridging across a variety of languages, and producing significant anthologies for a number of local authorities. Recent years of ill health did little to put a stop to his gallop, though he did have to slow his pace.
I will miss him greatly.
“Brief flapping walks
with leather wings extended
in the January dark:
two herons and myself
despite good sense
still holding on
maintaining flesh and feather:
all downhill from here
but downhill we can walk forever”
(from We Have Given Up On Hills, Collected Poems, Dedalus Press, 2012)
Mary Shine Thompson (a critic, working on a study of Austin Clarke)
Stop the lights. Macdara Woods, the poet of the Luas (“how beautiful is the Luas /… / Quick and busy in the dark/ Imprinting sense on things”, he writes in Overview), has departed the delta of downtown Ranelagh, his “sights upon / damp alleyways of Eden in the dawn” (Serial Flashback).
For more than a half century his watchful I composed a poetic self out of interminable small hours spent sounding out a past beyond talk. He never entertained facile fictions about life or art, but he did hold fast to some tenets of faith. One was that “there’s truth in all tomfoolery” (Song for the Magic Mountain). Another was that terse words could tell it straight, as in: “Winter coming in again/ The nights grow dark/ Cold and shivering // This is not enough for me”. His form could be as poised as his tone exquisite. Gerard Manley Hopkins could hardly have bettered a line like: “fly stall falter fall and touch” (Miz Moon).
For Macdara Woods, “the problem bared is perennial return” (The Snow that scatters the Leaves), and moving on could just possibly clear the mind. Always a spiritual restlessness pervades his verse. It is evident in the way that, as often than not, he dispenses with the full stop at the end of poems, as if to signify that: “There’s no going back I must go on” (Song). He has moved on to his reward on the “white curved road above and over yonder” (Dear Souls in September). His poetry, however, has staying power, and there is no stopping it. Suaimhneas na bhflaitheas síoraí dó.
Eva Bourke (poet and translator)
My husband Eoin told me that he remembered seeing Macdara Woods as a very handsome young poet wandering the streets of Dublin clad in a dark cloak and a wide-brimmed hat. It seems to me Macdara retained this somewhat romantic aura of the solitary, detached and clear-eyed observer all his life. I love the way his work engages passionately, truthfully, sometimes despairingly with life’s transient joys and lasting vicissitudes, but is shot through at the same time with a glittering seam of humour, often self-deprecating or caustic, and how reading or hearing his poems is unfailingly an exhilarating experience, not least due to their effortless formal skill. He was as much at home in the international literary tradition as in the more local, traditional Irish vernacular.
Macdara was the master of the unexpected, the surreal, the arresting turn of phrase, of contradictory moods and uncommon poetic settings or registers that are uniquely his – nothing is predictable or stale, everything is new and fresh. And beware of his anger or outrage at those in power which could turn into a finely sharpened curse in the best bardic tradition as in the wonderful When All This Is Over from his last collection Music From the Big Tent, where the speaker hopes “that the ruthless men in the big black cars / are lonely / there behind bullet-proof glass” and that they might have doubts in the middle of the night and do something about it “before the avenging angel / stoops and tears their liver out”. His generous heart was open to the less fortunate, he was a great poet, a kind and loyal friend, and it is with great sorrow I heard of his death. He will be sorely missed.
Joseph Woods (poet and former Poetry Ireland director)
Macdara, unusually suited in a three-piece pin-stripe, matching his slicked, jet-black hair and looking smartly Sicilian with Eiléan stylishly at his side, making such an elegant couple at our wedding on Achill Island, 15 years ago last Thursday. Turning over that anniversary, last week in Harare, I thought of Macdara, knowing his state was serious. I learnt only this morning (Sunday), on arrival in Ireland that his good fight ended Friday … Macdara sometimes told a story of the efforts he made during a Foot and Mouth crisis in the UK to get to Ireland from London, for his friend and mentor Patrick Kavanagh’s funeral. I now find, almost accidently, I’m here for his.
He was a version of a father to me (his birthday, my father’s anniversary) and we first met on a poetry reading tour of Sicily in 1994 where we were put together in shared hotel rooms. Macdara was unperturbed by my nightly chain-smoking and patiently tolerated my daft questions about the world of poetry and one which I was new to. We became firm but respectful friends and saw a bit of the world, Italy, Austria and Russia, through poetry tours. I always marvelled at how he never repeated the same reading – each tailored to the place, his impressions and current circumstances. He had a marvellous reading voice and a command that was the mark of greatness; in Russia his delivery was compared to that of Joseph Brodsky.
His work, only rightly acknowledged in his later years, was confirmed by a Collected Poems in 2012. This was followed by the extraordinary News from the Big Tent which explored illness, confinement and mortality with an exuberant and imaginative release. And in an irony, not lost on him, when he was recently awarded the Michael Hartnett prize for that book, he had to leave his hospital bed to receive it. The world of Irish and international poetry is diminished by his departure, I’ll miss his counsel and many kindnesses.
Mary O’Malley (poet)
Macdara Woods was a Dublin poet of European sensibility. When I started publishing poems in Cyphers, he was one of a number of established poets to write to me encouraging notes, and comments on individual poems. He was generous with his time and praise, for which I am still grateful.
He ws also one of the first poets I heard read his own work, a pleasure as he had a fine voice, and read unfussily and very well.
I met him in early April this year in Newcastlewest. We were both recipients of the Eigse Michael Hartnett Award. Despite being very ill, he had made a great effort to attend and accept the award in person. He spoke about Michael Hartnett whom he had known well, about evenings spent together, and mentioned Michael’s love of song and the ballad. He read a few poems, his voice resonant and strong.
Then, just as we might have expected him to leave the podium, he seemed to gather himself, and after referring to Hartnett’s Maiden Street Ballad, which was sung to the air of The Rakes of Limerick, he started to sing his own poem Stroza Capponi At Seventy Three to the same air. I was not the only one moved and astonished by his clear singing, my last memory of him, and a parting gift to all who were there.
So I’ll wander the roads
For as long as I can
Remaining a hopeful
And upstanding man
To find out the ultimate
And terminal plan
Of the butterfly and the
Philip Coleman (associate professor in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where he is also a Fellow)
In a homage to the American poet John Berryman, whom he saw reading in London (not Dublin) in 1967, Macdara Woods wrote:
Ovid, could read,
With the soles of his feet: O, well enough,
At least, to keep the traction taut.
I was honoured to publish this poem in an anthology celebrating Berryman’s centenary in 2014, and I was fortunate to have a number of wonderful conversations over the last few years of his life with Macdara. This poem, which was subsequently included in Music from the Big Tent (2016), brilliantly captures the syntactical technique and electric wit of Berryman’s Dream Songs. Though they point to Ovid, these lines actually describe aspects of Macdara Woods’s own work: his sense of the important connection between the poet’s music and the body, for one thing, but also his abiding belief in the purchase poetry can have on our personal and communal lives.
Macdara Woods, like Berryman before him, dedicated his life to keeping “the traction taut” in a body of work that spans over five decades and ranges from Dublin to Umbria to Marrakesh. All of these places, and many more, are described in detail in his poems. As Berryman said of Stephen Crane: “His eyes remained wide open on his world.” His social and public vision was always strong and clear. However, he also gave generously of his personal life in many beautiful and moving poems about his son, Niall, for example, and his grandchildren, Phoenix and Arthur.
When it appeared in 2012, his Collected Poems confirmed Macdara Woods’s place as one of the most honest and formally inventive Irish poets of the last half century. His last book, Music from the Big Tent (2016), maintained a keen sense of music and form in the aftermath of serious illness, but it also affirmed the poet’s belief in the visionary potential of the ordinary. In one of his last, great songs, he wrote:
So I’ll wander the roads
For as long as I can
Remaining a hopeful
And upstanding man
To find out the ultimate
Of the butterfly and the
His poems are rooted in the real, but in their music and the luminous clarity of their images, they reach beyond this world toward ‘the ultimate’. The poet’s “search for sense” may be over, but the sense of his poems – their absolute insistence on poetry’s place and value in the world – will long outlive him.
Brian Lynch (poet and novelist)
One of the most onerous burdens all but very few poets have to bear is the realisation that although, as John Keats said, ‘Fame is the spur’, when it comes down to it, hardly anyone cares. To be famous in the uncaring world only exceptional talents, like Seamus Heaney, qualify, which is absurd when one considers the achievement of, say, Thomas Kinsella. But true poets, the real thing, which Macdara Woods was, are so rare that their death should cause their country, and not just the lovers of poetry, a pang of frustrated regret.
The regret is all the sharper when the poet continues, as Woods continued, to improve his talent. All his life he got better and better. When I first knew Macdara, more than 50 years ago, he belonged, sort of, to the apocalyptical school of the wholly Welsh Dylan Thomas, the half-Irish George Barker, and the peculiarly English surrealist David Gascoyne. Who remembers those last two geniuses now? In any event, their rhetoric gradually withered away under the down-to-earth influence of Patrick Kavanagh and by the time Macdara had entered his fifties he had evolved his own voice.
It was the voice of a wanderer in the wide world, specifically the narrowness of Dublin, in and around Ranelagh. He was unashamedly poetic, rather irritated at not being heard or properly understood, but he was humorous and, despite great suffering caused by illness, remarkably wise, tender and affecting. Official Ireland, which appears to think nobility can only be measured by prizes, will remain as always unmoved, but Macdara Woods served a noble cause and his fame is true and will survive. He did his duty. What better reward can a poet ask for?
Theo Dorgan (poet and broadcaster)
The signature note of Macdara’s life, as a man and as a poet, was generosity.
He was generous to younger poets, generous to his peers, generous to the memory of the dead. He believed in the salvific power of poetry, not just in the power of the poem to heal but in the steadying power of the craft itself as a specific and charm against the dark powers of the world. He was often lonely, in the way that a kind soul will be lonely in the face of evil, of suffering, of pain, but against this loneliness he celebrated undying love and companionship, was forever in search of, always encouraging to, kindred spirits of the heart.
He was generous, too, in the breadth of his interests, in the giving of himself to an astonishing variety of people, place and circumstance. From Marrakesh to Meath and Moscow, from Ranelagh to Perugia, with an alert and sympathetic intelligence, he brought us poems that are vivid, discursive, informative, often surprising and always deeply humane. He was a determined worrier, an aficionado of gloom, but he accepted and mined this aspect of his given self with great good humour and mischievous intelligence. He knew what it was to give yourself to the road, and to make poems from the journey. He taught us what it is to be “benign in the present hour of grace”.
Erin Fornoff (poet)
I met Macdara Woods at my first poetry festival in Strokestown. He was wearing a hat like Indiana Jones and seemed something of a rogue and was immensely kind, immediately. I was intimidated by the festival – it was the kind of country pile venue that mildly blows an American’s mind. As I said to him at the time, I saw myself as a spoken word poet and was more used to “shouting” poems over people ordering pints at the bar. The Strokestown audience, and Macdara, was new to me – he didn’t clap between poems and listened hard enough to make your every word swell with meaning. As several other esteemed poets have done gently since he tried to dissuade me of the perceived divide between spoken word and page poets. He let me know there was a place for me in the realm of poetry. He told me stores of shouting poems from the backs of lorries in the 1960s, of his years creating the kind of poetry gigs my gang believed we had only just invented.
That day Macdara complimented me on the poem I read. To a new poet, a bit tremulous in a vaunted space, it was profound to talk to people who knew Heaney, to meet artists who had devoted their life to this craft. It genuinely changed my perspective as a poet and opened up a world to me I thought wasn’t mine. Macdara was the first to tell me I should think about a book, and that too was immensely fortifying.
Since that meeting we kept in intermittent touch and he was delighted when my book came out and seemed especially delighted it came out with Dedalus Press, his own publisher. In the years since he has encouraged me from afar and even allowed me to talk Eilean and himself into judging the Lingo Festival Poetry Slam where I hoped the shouted poems reminded him of his days reciting from trucks. I see a clear line from meeting Macdara to becoming the poet I am now, and am so grateful for his kindness. His encouragement meant more than he knew, and his contributions to so many people are as vital to his legacy as his tremendous body of work. It’s a lovely thing to know writers, because you can learn and know something of them from the things they’ve brought into the world, and even after they’re gone, those things remain.