Songs of dark experience, and innocence
True to form, Paul Durcan’s new collection makes poetry of everything, from online banking to the batch loaf. But it is also a book haunted by death, which, he explains, is not a contradiction, writes ARMINTA WALLACE
NEW VOLUMES OF poetry are often slim, bendy, self-effacing affairs. A new book by Paul Durcan, on the other hand, is generally reassuringly solid, with a beautifully-designed cover and an intriguing title. His forthcoming collection, Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being, has a matt white background emblazoned with the unlikely but unmistakeable figure of a giraffe.
Settled in a window seat in the bar of the Davenport Hotel on Merrion Square, Durcan runs his hand affectionately over the book. “I’ve been very fortunate down the years with all my publishers, that I choose the cover and so forth,” he says. “In this case they were completely obliging and it worked like a dream. I didn’t want a photograph or a painting of a giraffe. I wanted the texture, and the incredibly beautiful pattern, and the way the line of the spine goes, you know . . .”
He traces the bumpy ridge with a finger, riffing all the while about his affinity with the creatures of the earth, especially, since childhood, elephants. “But then – for no reason I could explain at all to myself, or to yourself – a giraffe just began to take over in my soul over the last 10 years,” he says.
The title of the collection combines the words of St Paul from the Acts of the Apostles with Durcan’s own sense that praise is something elemental. “I think of praise as an element, like water – or fire. It’s meant to suggest several levels of consciousness. But that is the primary one. The element in which you, or I, swim.”
Mention of his biblical namesake prompts a lengthy digression about the beauty of Athens and the intellectual tradition of the Areopagus, which functioned as a court of appeal in ancient Greece. A conversation with Durcan is a singular experience. Sometimes he slows almost to a stop, his eyes closed as if every word is causing him pain; at other times he is as sharp and articulate as a whip cracked in a clear blue sky. Always, he is full of mischief.
So, famously, is his poetry. Seamus Heaney has described Durcan’s work as “bitter-sweet clowning”. In a review in this newspaper Paula Meehan described his last collection, Life is a Dream, as “a poetry for the befuddled, the disorganised, the demented, the muddling through, the most of us. His songs celebrate our small mercies and tender decencies in a world that favours the corrupt, the greedy, the alpha-gobshites.”
True to form, the new book makes poetry of online banking, the batch loaf, Cafe Java and Amanda Brunker. But it is also a book haunted by death. There are poems in memory of Nuala O’Faolain, Dermot Bolger’s wife Bernie, keeper of the Böll Cottage on Achill Island Michael Carr, and – above all – the philosopher John Moriarty. So Durcan doesn’t see praise and death as incompatible?
“Oh no,” he says, looking shocked. “Oh, no. I mean, I’m constantly amazed at John Moriarty’s embrace of death and life so that he didn’t see any division. As a human creature he feared the physical, the actual moments of death, as any creature would. But otherwise he lived it all his life – and, of course, wrote about it. I always aspire to even a nugget of that, because I find it very hard. And my own inner terror of death, terror of suicide, depression and all of that – that’s all part of it.”
Durcan’s ongoing struggle with depression is manifest in such poems as The Annual January Nervous Breakdown and Thinking About Suicide. He thought long and hard about whether to publish the latter piece, he says. “I definitely had mixed feelings – though I have mixed feelings about everything. That’s the ethical life. You have to weigh it up.”
His penchant for making poetry out of the quotidian, on the other hand, is non-negotiable. “I always went along on the basis that everything is grist to the mill, which is something Patrick Kavanagh explicitly believed,” he says. “I think my generation of poets – Brian Lynch, Michael Hardiman, Macdara Woods – we’ve been given permission by him to write about anything. I did try to write about AIB, for instance. But it was probably libellous. It’s very hard to avoid. Do you remember the day Mr Gleeson [former AIB chairman Dermot] got egg thrown on his face? I wanted to celebrate that – but it didn’t work.
“The thing is, can you keep your eyes open and not let the blues get you down to the point where you can’t do it? I’m amazed at some of the pieces in this book – that I actually did write them, because I might so easily not have bothered. Like that night in Brisbane.”
The poem in question, The Boy from Belarus, dates from 2007 and celebrates the record-breaking achievement of a hammer-thrower called Ivan Tsikhan. It begins:
Out of luck on a Tuesday night in Brisbane,
Crumbs on the carpet, I switched on the TV. OH GOD! NO! SPORT!
What’s the process involved in the writing of a poem such as this, so deeply rooted in the present moment? Is it essential, for example, to make notes at the time? “Oh yes. Yes. I once heard Dervla Murphy say on the wireless – about 30 years ago – that if she didn’t write down what she had heard and seen within 24 hours, it was no good. That was music to my ears, because that’s how it has to be. And the next 24 or 48 hours are crucial for me. If the first draft doesn’t get written then, it won’t have what it should have – the actuality of that utterly unique and fleeting moment. The exact words some person used. I like that phrase of Wallace Stevens: ‘The poem is the cry of its occasion’.”
He repeats the phrase, savouring its resonance. In another poem in the new collection, Sandymount Strand Keeping Going, Durcan remarks to Seamus Heaney, whom he has met while both are walking on the beach:
I am thinking it has been
A strange way to have spent one’s life,
Fifty or more years composing poems.
“Well, it is. Isn’t it? One of the children I met at a talk I gave in a primary school yesterday – a small, sturdy girl with spectacles, in her blue uniform – she’s gazing up at me and she says, ‘How many poems have you written?’ She said, ‘You have written 22 books. How many poems have you written?’ I said, ‘Oh, dear. Well, there’s 82 in that one – so therefore there must be, maybe, 3000?’ And I began to get very embarrassed. But of course, in the writing I’m not saying to myself, ‘My 22nd’. This is the only book. Every time.”
He beams. Then he’s off again, into a merry digression on the poetic life, which links his friend and fellow poet Michael Hartnett, to whom he unveiled a statue last year in Newcastle West, Co Limerick, and another Michael: Michael Coady.
“He’s 71 years of age now, and an elder of the tribe. He was a national school teacher all his life. He and his wife were flying to Kuala Lumpur yesterday to visit their daughter, who is working there. And he knew I was driving to this school on the shores of Lough Rea.
“Yesterday morning, at 8.30am, I got a text message from him.” Pause. Silence. Impish grin. “And what it said, simply, was: ‘It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.’” Or, through his poems, to empower the rest of us to fly up and out of the daily grind, and into the land of giraffes. If only for a little while.
PAUL DURCAN’S readings have attained semi-legendary status, both in Ireland and abroad. They sell out fast and are famous for reducing audiences to tears of helpless laughter. “People have called me a performance poet – a phrase I deeply dislike,” he says. “But to me, it’s another part of the work – or rather, the fulfilment of it. The poem has to work on the page, but it has to be spoken as well.”
His first experience of hearing poetry read aloud was a recording of TS Eliot reading Four Quartets. “As he said himself, the old rascal – he wrote his own sleeve notes – and he said that what you read on the page is only an approximation of what the poet intended. You can only get the exact metric by listening to the recording of the poem by the poet himself. It would be absurd to call TS Eliot a performance poet – but it is part of what poetry is.”