Perfect stranger trapped in the extraordinary
POETRY: Life Is a Dream: 40 Years Reading Poems 1967-2007By Paul Durcan Harvill Secker, 586pp. £16.99
MOST PEOPLE inhabit a middle ground from which they dream of escaping into the extraordinary. Paul Durcan, like all real poets, is a street wanderer, constantly looking through the lit windows of the ordinary, wishing to get back in. He can’t, of course: he’s trapped in the extraordinary. Or, as the Arthur Hugh Clough epigraph to Life is a Dreamhas it, “I am the most perfect stranger present.”
Would people, Irish people at any rate, think of Durcan as a perfect stranger? Probably not. For several decades he has been publicly present – but, like his mentor and spiritual father, Patrick Kavanagh, present in a way that needs, now, to be corrected by the right kind of critical attention. Where Kavanagh suffered from an excess of anecdotal publicity, Durcan has had the word Entertainer slung like an albatross around his neck. As with the Kavanagh Selectedsome years back, Life Is a Dreamfinally presents the evidence of major artistic achievement in a single, unified text.
It is no accident that another poet not considered “serious” at the time is invoked both in the foreword and among the testimonials to Life Is a Dream. I mean TS Eliot, who for all his range of cultural reference always made clear the adherence of poetry to the oral tradition – to chant, incantation, jungle drums. And to the written poem as a kind of score whose authenticity is tested against the ear, in performance. Which is why, of course, Life Is a Dreamis subtitled 40 Years Reading Poems 1967-2007. If not the only, it is the most sustained attempt yet to relocate Irish poetry from the eye to the ear, off the page and into auditory space.
Comedy, as Kavanagh famously said, is abundance of life. That abundance is present in Tarry Flynnand The Green Foolbut not, I think, in his verse, which sends out a different signal, offers a way of seeing the world but leaves it to someone else to complete the picture. Life Is a Dream, with its peopled, sacral, rhapsodic, comic-absurd multiplicity, is the fulfilment of what is hinted at in Kavanagh, whose Selected is the blueprint for a comic vision of which Life Is a Dreamis the fully articulated and populated embodiment.
Of the song of him with the world in his care
I am content to know the air
These lines and others like them in the early Durcan show the younger poet still in thrall to his senior. They are not so much comedy as theory of comedy. After a few false starts, though, the long lines, to be heard and breathed, start happening, the open verse passages, and the characteristic vision, that are both Irish and universal at the same time
Black sister with an afro halo around your
And a handbag by your side and a string of
Watching for news from a newsreel in the
Of the television lounge of a country hotel
The Cork-based Durcan of the 1970s and early 1980s reminds me of the Henry Miller of 1930s Paris. A man apparently down on his luck but possessed of a happiness that has to do, partly, with the presence of a loved woman and partly with the excitement of discovering his inner voice. The public house, that fallback zone for the angels of a non serviamline, from Kavanagh to Hartnett, provides the locus for some of his finest poems of this period, notably The Miami Showband Massacre 1975(“You made music, that is all. You were realists / And beautiful were your feet”), the fantastical riff of The Hat Factoryand the windbreak from collective insanity that is Teresa’s Bar.
The Garda Síochána or the Guardia Civil –
The Junior Chamber or the Roman Curia –
The Poetry Society or the GAA –
The Rugby Club or the Maynooth Hierarchy –
RTÉ or Conor’s Cabaret –
It makes no difference in Teresa’s Bar
Where the air is as annotated with the
tobacco smoke of inventiveness
As the mind of a Berkleyan philosopher
The painful, if celebrated, poems of The Berlin Wall Café(1985) bring to an end that early surge of a decade and a half, and constitute a kind of midpoint in the work as a whole, after which the conditions of the writing itself – private happiness, public depression and atrocity, in Ireland and elsewhere – are turned inside out. External recognition grows and grows but so, too, does a sense of inner desolation. The poet, returning from Russia or Brazil, Japan or Australia, crawls into his Dublin “cave” to confront the demons of inadequacy, lovelessness, age. The poems are no less funny, wild and visionary, but the terms of the equation are reversed.
The skin on my face
Is beige, and my hair is grey
Paul Durcan has his detractors, and he should be glad of them, for, as Kavanagh says, it is only what is defined in a man that his critics can target. What defines Durcan, in a world of poet-courtiers, is a willingness to go poetically on the attack where Irish public life is concerned, to defend the “indefensible” ( The Stoning of Francis Stuart), to be universalist – not merely internationalist – where the common fate is concerned.
Jack Lynch is an accountant in Rio
Born in Sao Paolo in 1939
Of a first generation Brazilian, middle-class
father from Ballinasloe
Who was devoured by a mulatta working-
Irony, as Czeslaw Milosz writes, is the poetic orthodoxy of our age. To be a rhapsode, as Durcan is by nature, is to be both behind and ahead of one’s time, a time of moral, political and most especially emotional self-censorship. I can think of no Irish poet so prepared to be openly celebratory ( Early Christian Ireland Wedding Cry) or outraged ( Omagh), so careless of drawing fire on himself in the name of a truth that transcends him.
Single collections of poems tend to focus on single moments – Daddy, Daddyand The Laughter of Mothersmemorialising parents, for instance, or Christmas Day evoking a particular loneliness. A big retrospective such as Life Is a Dream, however, brings out something different, the sense of a lifelong project as deliberately and intelligently mapped out as Yeats’s Sligo, Heaney’s mid-Ulster townlands or Joyce’s Dublin streets – reappropriating, placename by local placename, event by event, personage by real or invented personage, the whole Hibernocentric universe in the name of an updated comic vision.
If Life Is a Dreamreminds me of anything it is The Municipal Gallery Revisited, where the poet Yeats finds himself among paintings by and of friends through the Ireland of the previous 50 years. Not simply because of the Irish politics and family history in Durcan’s own background, or the passion for painting in his work, but because in this monumental book, as in a gallery of auditory hallucinations, we are surrounded by the transformed and obliquely lit images of the last half-century. Or, as Yeats would have it, “an Ireland the poets have imagined, terrible and gay”.
Harry Clifton’s Secular Eden: Paris Notebooks 1994-2004 is published by Wake Forest University Press
Paul Durcan will read from his new book at the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, tomorrow at 7.30pm. Tickets €15 from 01-2312929