Sinéad Morrissey: a maker of intricate poem machines
Interview: the Northern Irish poet has won this year’s Forward Prize for her wonderful collection ‘On Balance’. She talks about how well-made poems can connect with the world
Sinéad Morrissey: “Poetry can be intellectually complex and difficult but still carry powerfully to a readership or audience via sound, feeling and an appreciation of context.” Photograph: Eric Luke
Introducing this year’s Forward Prizes readings at the Royal Festival Hall, William Sieghart recalled how he had established them as a result of his failure to persuade Guinness to reintroduce its own annual poetry awards and anthologies which had introduced him to so much great poetry in his youth.
Perhaps this connection was in his mind because three of the five contenders for the Best Collection Prize were Irish, including the eventual winner, Sinéad Morrissey for On Balance.
For Morrissey, adding the only major British poetry prize she hadn’t so far taken crowned a career in which she has moved to the forefront of her generation’s poets, from winning the Patrick Kavanagh Award at 18 to the National Poetry Competition in 2007 and the TS Eliot Prize for her previous collection Parallax in 2014 – though l have no doubt On Balance is her best book to date.
Reviewing it in this newspaper, John McAuliffe wrote: “Morrissey’s clarity and confidence mean that On Balance approaches each of her subjects with great fluency and command. The essayistic flourishes of her longer poems and sequences are always impressive, but what is just as memorable and engaging in On Balance is Morrissey’s networked framing of images and themes.”
Morrissey herself has written of the liberation she gains from exploring “form’s strictures and articulacy” in a manner reminiscent of Paul Muldoon’s statement that “form is a straitjacket in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini”. However, if she resembles Muldoon in her formal inventiveness, Morrissey moves hearts as well as our minds with the connections of her word-machines, sharing Heaney’s ability to do this with a wide range of readers. Susannah Herbert of the Forward Foundation commented of the result: “A welcoming book, but also a finely tuned one, each poem engineered precisely to engage. The Forward Prizes were founded to celebrate excellence and to increase the audience for poetry; in honouring Sinead’s work, the judges this year have done both.”
This breadth of appeal may reflect Morrissey’s willingness to move outside universities in her life and writing; as inaugural poet laureate of Belfast, she worked with charities including the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health, but particularly valued working with the women prisoners of Hydebank in south Belfast.
In our interview, I inquire if she had consciously developed this openness in her poetry.
“It’s simply how I write. Combining these two things is partly about disparate subject matter. Writing one poem about the invasion of East Prussia by the Red Army in January 1945 followed by another poem about watching a meteor shower with my son doesn’t seem particularly incongruous to me. Poetry can be intellectually complex and difficult but still carry powerfully to a readership or audience via sound, feeling and an appreciation of context.”
Appreciation of context involves poetry’s traditions; regarding influences, I quote to her Borges’ remark that all writers create their own precursors.
“I would entirely agree that we create our own precursors – we need that conversation so desperately. The idea of influence is too passive. Les Murray was important to me in my middle 20s – I turned him into my teacher on form, because I knew understanding form better was going to bring me out of a creative impasse caused by overreliance on inspiration. I read Amy Clampitt later for her self-generating, knotty, but deeply generous linguistic response to the world. I love Mayakovsky, too, for his spiky exuberance, his bold rupturing of the line in the wake of the Russian Revolution, for showing me the kinds of things which disrupted white space can allow into a poem.”
Though the vote for Trump probably has more catastrophic implications for the world at large, I experienced the vote for Brexit as a deeper grief
Poetry, bones and machines are articulated, and I particularly want to know if her celebration of the 13th-century Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices in the ingenious verbal devices of On Balance was a more deliberate response of technique against so many threats of impending disasters alluded to in the poems.
“Yes, exactly. I deliberately set up a corollary throughout the book between machines and the machines of the poems themselves – I think that’s actually the crux of the collection. If the little well-made, intricate machine of a poem can connect to a different well-made, intricate machine out there in the world, be it a bridge, an aeroplane, a weather system, or even an orbit, the reverberations – another mechanical term – of the poem multiply. The book is filled with threats, teetering, radical instability on the level of subject: the ship that sank, the melting Arctic. The dance of form is a response, but it’s acutely – and self-consciously – temporary.”
Morrissey’s craft in On Balance embodies care at every level, from the poetry’s making to concern for her family and the world at a time when anti-expertise and carelessness mark much of its its politics. I ask her about recent developments in Britain, where she now works, Europe and the US.
“The vote for Brexit followed by the vote for Trump was a double trauma, and though the vote for Trump probably has more catastrophic implications for the world at large, I experienced the vote for Brexit as a deeper grief. A few years ago I adapted a canto of Byron’s Don Juan as a polemic against the EU over its enforced austerity measures in Greece. I don’t suddenly agree with any of those measures now, and perhaps the European Project is doomed anyway, but I am appalled by the rejection of a wider, European identity which the vote for Brexit embodied, the resurgence of an anachronistic, xenophobic, Little Britain-focused reactionary national politics. It feels like wilful destruction born of rage, to which we are all now tethered.
There was huge support for me as I grew up. My family was incredibly ideas-driven. My parents had structured their lives around a very good idea. It was very stimulating
“The lack of consideration for Ireland, and the implications for the Irish Border, during the Brexit campaign, was also incredibly dispiriting. My husband is from Tucson, Arizona and follows the antics of Trump through a newsfeed on his phone every day. I can’t quite take Donald Trump in. It’s too incredible a fact that he’s in power, and that he stays in power, no matter what he does or says. I fear the radical instability he generates and feeds off, where it can lead.
“Behind everything, widening inequality, with social media the demented accelerator of ill feeling, changing everything in its turn.”
Turning to the human chain of Morrissey’s radical heritage, which saw her family in the past politically engage with efforts to make the world a better place, I am interested to know where poetry fitted in for them as well as for her.
“Poetry in particular only because poetry is what I do, not because I feel it peculiarly suited to articulate a response. Yes, there was huge support for me as I grew up. My family was incredibly ideas-driven. My parents at that time had, after all, structured their lives around a very good idea. It was very stimulating. I think connecting both ends of the human chain I’m linked to is not a struggle, it comes naturally to me to see the different generations of a family joined together by wheels of both time and genetic inheritance. The Singing Gates links my grandfather, who was interned during the second World War for Irish Republican affiliation and who later ‘converted’ to Communism, with my son, who is dyslexic, via a shared passion for knowledge and an uncanny ability to self-educate.”
This inevitably led on to a broader consideration of her extraordinary use of historical material in her work.
“I’m inspired not just by ‘what happened’, however that may be made known to us, but primarily by those imaginative acts of historical recreation by which we enter the past. To know the past is a doomed enterprise; creative reimagining is all we’ve got. Objects in museums only ‘reek of meaning’ once we’ve done the work of slotting them back in their original contexts, an idiosyncratic and profoundly artistic process on our part. In Articulation, a museum guide ‘explains’ the significance of the bones of Napoleon’s horse to museum visitors, and as the poem progresses the claims s/he makes become increasingly outlandish. It’s a poem which both creates and undoes itself as it goes along. We can’t really look through a horse’s eye-socket and see ‘the steaming blooded fields / of Europe just as the dog star fades’, and yet if we can’t somehow arrive at that vista via the bones, what’s the use of displaying them?”
So I leave that last question to Morrissey herself, a wonderful poet in every sense whose curiosity enriches her readers as well as her work. If you don’t know her poetry, I envy you: you have marvellous things in store. If you do, it is exciting to have seen her develop through to the remarkable achievement of On Balance, and to think that whatever new heights she flies to next, we’ll be flying with her.
Ian Duhig is also a Forward Prize winning poet. His latest collection is The Blind Roadmaker (Picador)