Normal People: The origins of Connell and Marianne

Published in the Stinging Fly, Sally Rooney’s love poems have a brave vulnerability

Sally Rooney’s poems portray an openness to the minutiae of love and longing that forms the keystone of her novels. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Sally Rooney’s poems portray an openness to the minutiae of love and longing that forms the keystone of her novels. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

“No one who likes Yeats is capable of human intimacy.” So declares Nick, one of the protagonists of Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends. Readers of her fiction (and viewers of the BBC’s recent adaptation of Normal People) might argue that Rooney’s characters aren’t exactly experts at intimacy themselves.

There is often so much unsaid, so much misunderstood, that the very idea of a complete and unmediated connection seems almost impossible. Yeats, in fact, who apocryphally commented on “the perpetual virginity of the soul”, knew a thing or two about that sort of interior isolation.

Rooney’s novels are characterised by a deep interrogation of the ego. Her characters, though often inarticulate in their relations to each other, are allowed an expansive, contradictory interior life. The books are full of feeling: rather than showing us certain actions or scenes, and leaving the reader to infer the emotional resonances, Rooney’s characters are thinking and feeling things, and tell us in detail about the exact currents and contradictions of their psyche. Their “I” recurs constantly, to the point of forming a sort of mantra of selfhood.

It is perhaps unsurprising then (though the fact may surprise many of Rooney’s readers) that the novelist began her career as a poet, and published 10 poems over five years in the Stinging Fly, the literary journal she would later edit in 2018. Of course, few people would welcome a critical eye on their juvenilia, and Rooney was under 25 when these poems appeared. The way they relate to intimacy, to the possibilities of love and communicating love, however, mean that they offer a revealing insight into the genesis of Rooney’s fiction, and how she has adapted across literary forms.

One of Rooney’s most remarked-upon devices is the epistle: her novels (in a curiously 19th century way) are full of messages – emails rather than letters – in which things are both said and unsaid, and the mind-life of her characters (and their self-presentation) is on full display for the reader. The forms of Rooney’s poetry are, in fact, essentially epistolary, and show the deep influence of poetic form on her novels.

Tírghrá, Leaving You, Impossibilities, Seven AM in April and the majority of the other poems published in The Stinging Fly are addressed to an absent friend or lover, a “you” that recurs constantly, whose lack of reply spurs the tumbling thoughts of the speaker.

There isn’t a poem of Rooney’s in The Stinging Fly that is not spoken by a lyric “I”, and we might think of them as an unrelenting representation of the mind in solitary speech. Whereas the novels give us points of view, and find their key interest in the lapses between characters, the poems are monologues, full of questions and a sort of waterfall effect, with the lines spilling down the page in a questing, runaway style. They are vulnerable, sometimes even painful, without resorting to verbal flourishes.

In Leaving You, the speaker opens:

For an afternoon it was easy. I sat while you

talked about loving me and I felt nothing, feeling nothing

for so long that I became extremely conscious

of the nothing.

There is little music here, but that’s not the point. Rooney’s way of relaxing into lists, building long streams of thought with commas, allows for a sense of unfiltered thought, of cascading honesty. There’s the characteristically flat tone of the novels here, too: “In April I loved you so much / that I cried.”

Normal People, Rooney’s second novel, began as a short story called At The Clinic, published in The White Review. However, the emotional core of the book might be traced even further back to Leaving You and similar poems. “Connell is afraid that he is an emotionally empty person,” writes Rooney in At The Clinic. The story ends with a pun. Marianne, who has had a dental procedure, begins to cry. “The feeling is coming back now, she says. That’s all.”

I would be surprised if Rooney’s poetry was not influenced by Sharon Olds – the great American confessional poet. Leaving You has a cadence similar to that of Old’s heartbreaking poem Last Look (from Stag’s Leap, 2012), though it takes the accrual of narrative and detail allowed in a novel for the pitch of Rooney’s emotional candour to find its earth.

Many people have commented on the use of silence in the BBC’s recent adaptation of Normal People; and silence is something poetry is particularly adept at. The white page is a silence that is punctuated, we might say, by language. The more of it there is, the less silence is left. That said, Rooney’s poetry is hardly minimal; neither is it verbally exuberant. Rather, its sentences are styled in a strikingly similar way to the prose readers will be familiar with. Nevertheless, Rooney’s ideal of poetry seems to fall into a category of wordlessness. As she writes of a lover in The Stillest Horse,

he doesn’t need words to love,

being a true poet,

showing a true thing essentially wordless

and the words do not damage the thing shown

Poetry is a form where emotion can take centre stage unashamedly. The lyric poem, especially, is unabashedly concerned with the self: its perceptions, its communication, its loves. Rooney is primarily a love poet, and the speakers of these poems, who are by turns numbed, passive, passionate, devoted, are prisms through which the various characters of Rooney’s fictions flash into view.

The celebrated imagery of her novels, which has a graceful ease, and rarely draws attention to itself, is present in these poems too. In Have I Been Severe? “The sky is wide open like one endless yawn”. The poems are also unblinking in their consideration of sex, jealousy. They are unguarded, unironic and have a brave vulnerability. This openness, to the minutiae of love and longing, forms the keystone of Rooney’s novels. And there is hope, too, and glints of devoted happiness, as in the rapturous crescendo of It Is Monday:

I will not stop smiling about you

you are the something summer was always meant for

[…]I am making you a quilt of sky

and seawater in case we need to remember

the places we saw our happiness enlarged

Seán Hewitt is a book critic for The Irish Times and a Government of Ireland Fellow at University College Cork. His book JM Synge: Nature, Politics, Modernism, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. His debut collection, Tongues of Fire, is published by Jonathan Cape

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