‘Secretly most prose writers and poets in Ireland want to be musicians’

Everyone’s first love among the arts is music, argue Eva Bourke and Vincent Woods, whose anthology, fermata, celebrates their love of music and the written word

Vincent Woods, Mary Ruddy, Eva Bourke and Vincent Murphy celebrate the publication of Fermata

Vincent Woods, Mary Ruddy, Eva Bourke and Vincent Murphy celebrate the publication of Fermata


Putting together this book in co-editorship was one of the most enjoyable things we have ever done. We believe that poetry and music are deeply connected art forms. Since first meeting in Galway through poetry and music sessions organized there in the 1980 we have been aware that a strong spirit of kinship between music and the word is an essential and enduring element of many literary and musical traditions. The shadows of Joyce and Yeats are often invoked in reference to Irish literary life and impulses. Their interweaving of song and music in their plays, poems and novels have undoubtedly inspired many younger writers. But they were drawing on an older tradition while making the new, and countless writers since then have made their own bright shadows out of the heart and chords of music, renewed the old and made new, original invigorating work that holds the pulse, the cuisle of heard and given notes.

Our initial motivation was that, apart from our love for music and the written word, we realized that there was no such collection published in Ireland and hardly any anywhere else in the Anglophone world. We decided to stay with contemporary, mostly Irish writers because a book of writings about music from all over the world would have been a different sort of book, and we probably would have had to spend years on it.

What we hadn’t quite anticipated when we began was the immense pleasure the contributions that started coming our way from all over Ireland would give us, poetry as well as prose, and over the year of collecting material continued to give us. It became abundantly clear to us that secretly most prose writers and poets in Ireland want to be musicians and that everyone’s first love among the arts is music. The various ways, the widely different registers and styles employed by the authors to give expression to this love constitute the immense allure of this collection. It is never boring or monotonous. We had no agenda, not wish to give priority to any of the many forms of music, classical, jazz, blues, country, rock, pop. This was no educational enterprise, and it turned out this inclusivity makes fermata so appealing.

Finding a title for a collection like this is tricky. In our case it had to be one that applied to both the written word and to music.

We settled on fermata as the title because a fermata in music is a notational symbol that can apply to music and musicians as well as to texts and readers. In poetry it could be compared to a caesura, or hiatus, in prose to a paragraph or chapter ending, and it is an old highly efficacious rhetorical device. In music a fermata is a sign above a note consisting of a small arc with a dot beneath it and is used in music to announce a moment of pause, the holding of a note to twice its length or even longer. It occurs frequently when a musical phrase is winding down, it is a moment when the players of wind instruments can put them down to catch their breath again.

The cricket in flight on the cover of fermata could be seen as the symbol for all the musicians and writers who undauntedly make their music somewhere in a secluded place. One of our motivations for choosing the title fermata was that it could also be interpreted as an invitation to potential readers to take a pause, a quiet moment for reading and listening.

Our publishers at Artisan House, a two-person venture at the foot of Diamond mountain in Letterfrack who valiantly and generously took us on despite financial difficulties, overcame these as though in their strides and produced a beautiful book which we are delighted with.

At the launch of fermata during the Clifden Arts Festival recently, Dr Cliodhna Carney of the English Department at NUI Galway most eloquently captured the motivating spirit behind fermata:

“What is an anthology if it is not created in something of this spirit of generosity and midwifery. Eva Bourke and Vincent Woods have drawn many voices together to give to their readers this full chorus that sings jubilantly of the place of music in life and writing.

The book has a subtle title – Fermata – a symbol from musical notation, not a sign of sound, but of a brief suspension of sound. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin riffs on the theme of the fermata in his introduction. But if the anthology starts – in its title – with the written, with the symbolic and learned art of notation, it quickly yields to the everyday, to the knowledge of the pitchfork in the hand and the tune in the bone and the turn in the road.

There are six chapters or movements. Miriam de Burca’s ornamented numerals at the head of each chapter underscore the thematic shifts. They are a lovely third art in this book about music and writing. There is grace and mischief in these drawings – her decorative acanthus-entwined Roman numeral for the opening section, Songbirds in the Stairwell, has a few memento mori thrown in – grinning skeletons peeping around the staircase, lest we become sappy and complacent.

Across these six sectional divisions there run distinct melodic lines that together make for harmony. The whole first section is not about human music at all, but the music produced by nature – the “annual tribal intoxication of the larynx” of the starlings in Eamonn Grennan’s Untitled, sounds heard by humans in dark gardens, woods and wetlands. So we start with sound, and with the realm of the senses …but this section also plays on the fermata, in the contemplation of silence as well as sound.

Finn MacCumhaill poses the question: “what is the finest music?” His Fianna all choose different sounds: – “Is it the cuckoo?” “Is it a gleeful lark?” “Is it the ring of spear on shield?” Finn is like an Irish Socrates, luring these obvious answers out of neophytes. The answer when it comes from Finn, rings true: “the music of what happens – that is the finest music.” The mistake of the Fianna was to be literal, to reach around in the category of sounds for the answer to the sweetest one. Finn’s answer on the one hand enlarges music beyond sound – into time and being – and at the same time domesticates it into the everyday of “what happens”…

Several writers directly or indirectly reprise this gesture – Kerry Hardie, the late Dennis O’Driscoll. Michael Coady boldly re-articulates Finn’s question: “What has this to do with poetry? With the music of what happens?” in his Three Men Standing at the Met. Cólm Tóibín goes one further, imagining a world after and beyond music, wonders if maybe the point of music is not just that – to outlive the organ that can hear it, or the instruments that can play it, or the technology that can reproduce it – what will it be then, when, as with Bishop Berkeley’s tree falling in the forest, there is no one to hear it?

But the contrastive logic of the book then kicks in – and the idea of music as elemental, “beyond”, transcendental – is brought back down to earth, like a kite from the heavens. And once again music is a modest tunesmith on a country road, or fingers on a fretboard, or best expressed by the musicians in Ciaran O’Driscoll’s Wasps in the Session who say to each other: “That whistle is going well for you” and “It’s not today nor yesterday you took up the fiddle”.

In this same vein, a trumpet is slung over the back, “like a shovel”, as Hugo Hamilton puts it, or an accordion is taken from the pillion bag of a Honda 50 in Tom French’s Like Cherry Flakes Falling. Or there’s the music of the building site, in Gerry Hanberry’s and Pat Boran’s poems about working men who are beautiful singers, who turn scaffolding into concert halls…or or there is Mark Granier being lulled to sleep in a classroom in 1973, by the boy behind him intoning over and over the Pink Floyd lyric – “the lunatic is on the grass”… and of course all metaphysics are grounded in John Sheahan’s vision of Ronnie Drew’s heaven. And yet, and yet…it’s on a country mountain road that the speaker in Vincent Woods’ McKenna’s tunes runs into the man who as a boy himself ran into the great John McKenna, and when he played for him, “music catches time”…

Although the whole collection is avowedly celebratory yet there are powerfully dark undercurrents, and not only in the beautiful section devoted to lament where grief “breaks on the grace note of a wren” in Geraldine Mitchell’s delicate elegy. Elsewhere there is the brilliantly realiSed speaker in Mary O’Malley’s Footsteps whose music drowns out wife and children, whose song, however beautiful, is self-medication and evasion.

And then there’s the music that’s left unfinished, that’s unperformed, unheard, unplayable. The “tunes we’d make if only we had the ear” as Vincent Woods puts it.

And so Eva Bourke’s The Irish tenor Michael Kelly recalls Mozart in Paris takes the great and prolific Mozart at a low ebb, cold and dejected in Paris. Like Stanley Kubrick making Barry Lyndon she lights the piece with the most authentic candelabra, she furnishes its freezing ante-rooms with period furniture, but her sources are a fragile medley of reliable and fake. There’s an irretrievability about it all. And she ends with the possibly forged lament for his last and unfinished work: il mio canto funèbre.

Ted Deppe’s poem about Adolf Wolfli is about another unrealiSed canto funèbre – a funeral march that cannot be played. Its composer is insane, his notation eccentric in the extreme, and the speaker in the poem is haunted by the music remaining sealed in its unreadability, and consequent unplayability, and consequent unhearability – s/he wants to bring it off the marks on the page onto a piano’s keys and into the air as sound.

This anthology tries to follow in verbal language the tracks left by music. But the tracks lead every which way. They lead to the music sheet in the piano stool, they lead to the stars; they connect three generations, two pianos, and two composers in Joan McBreen’s exquisite On Hearing my Daughter play the Swan; they go down the swerving mountain road, where the speaker in Moya Cannon’s Night Road in the Mountain is returning from a recital, “informed by rhythm/ and cadence/happy to live/between folded rock and stars”; they lead from the church choir to the pub where Rachel McNicholl’s organ-playing grand-aunt would slip in for a naggin (or two); they lead from the pirate radio broadcasting ships into the ears of young men, in past the hairs in the cochlea and straight and “naked” into the human heart.

The anthology begins with the song of the cricket under the hearth-stone, and it’s a cricket that visually defines the book in Miriam de Burca’s beautiful drawing on the cover, in her nod to Yeats’s Inisfree. The book ends with perhaps the closest that humankind ever got to the music of the spheres, to a music so perfect it seems to express the entire variegated phenomenon of the universe itself – the music of Bach.

And in the placement of this poem at the end we see the wit as much of the poet-editors as of the poet who has the last word – Pearse Hutchinson. One of his personae is talking to the other – “why’ve you never finished that poem about angels?”

And the poet’s alter ego replies:

Because/…I was listening to Bach.

Music hasn’t just surpassed theology, it seems to have made even poetry redundant.

Fermata is a collaboration in the best sense. Of all the writers who contributed poems and prose, of the editors, of the artist, Miriam de Burca, whose beautiful drawings triangulate the two-way concept of the anthology, of the photographer Christy McNamara, of the publishers who have made it such a physically lovely object – Vincent Murphy and Mary Ruddy of Artisan House, and of course the generous funders of the whole project – the many many people who gave to the fund-it campaign, both the fivers and the hundreds. They have their hand in making it. They knew they wanted a book like this to exist – and now it does, and here it is!”

Fermata: Writings Inspired by Music, edited by Eva Bourke and Vincent Woods, is published by Artisan House

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