The Bag Apron: The Poet and His Community by John Montague – Cead Isteach/Entry Permitted by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill – Three Europen Poets by Paul Durcan
Collectively these three books could be said to form a self-created imaginative conscience , and should be required reading for every serious student of poetry
John Montague’s lectures are particularly revealing . Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The Bag Apron: The Poet and His Community
Three European Poets is the title of one these slim and beautifully produced volumes, which collect lectures given by the Ireland Chairs of Poetry during their tenure, but in fact it could describe the three poets here at hand. The remarkable thing about these lectures is that they are poets speaking directly about their art, and they are a revelation. As the three poets talk of other poets and their influences, the names which echo around the lecture hall are those of Kafka, Rilke, Camus, Heidegger, Rene Char and so on, illustrating the unbridgeable gulf which has opened up between the practice of poetry in this corner of Europe, and the industry of academic study and canon-making which revolves around the concept of “Irish Literature”.
John Montague’s lectures are particularly revealing in this sense. In his first lecture he pays homage to the traditions of what Milosz calls “the corner of Europe that shaped me”. He speaks eloquently of the Irish language poets of South Armagh, the poets he encountered a child, and the strength lent to a voice by the pressure of a submerged community. But the captains of his soul, it soon emerges, are the French poets.
“It seems to me the great generation of French poets born on the hinge of the twentieth century, from writers like Jouve, Eluard, Aragon, Michaux, Ponge to Follain, Char and Guillevic are much more powerful than their contemporaries in English”. He points out that French poets are expected, before they do anything else, to think, whereas the English tradition, he argues, is more oriented to feeling. Inevitable then that his lectures, like his life, home in on France, and there is an hilarious account here of his time as Samuel Beckett’s neighbour in Paris. It serves to reminds us that no matter how disembodied a poet may seem to be, he is often grounded in a particular address, in this case the rather fine one of the Boulevard Raspail, referred to by Beckett, after a night of heavy drinking which ended in Montague propping him up as they walked home along it, as “the blazing boulevard”.
Montague’s successor in the Ireland Chair of Poetry, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, blazes many a boulevard in a dizzying peregrination from circumference to centre, and back again. She writes in Irish but for her this acts as an internationalising influence rather than the opposite. She acknowledges the strange situation of Irish with its complex relationship to English, as all Irish speakers are also English speakers, but she explains how living in a Turkish environment, she felt liberated to deal with Irish on its own terms, as another European language, part of a network much greater than mere English. Her long piece here on living in Turkey is one of the finest accounts of absorbing, and being absorbed into another culture, that I have ever come across.
In a lecture on the figure of the hag, she quotes approvingly: “Old Europe was intensified in Ireland where an abiding sense of a supreme, sovereign female, cosmic agency appears to have operated on the incoming culture.” Where others see divisions and borders, in both space and time, she sees connections and tapestries of myth, with poetry the universal language underlying it all.
Paul Durcan’s lectures concern themselves with three Irish poets as Europeans. In the first, on the late and greatly missed Anthony Cronin, Durcan points out though Cronin was almost uniquely among Irish poets fascinated by the matière of England, he was European in “his ferocious passion for ideas”. For Cronin, argues Durcan, “there were no neat frontiers between work and leisure, poetry and history and philosophy and economics and art” .
“Linguistically man dwelleth on earth” – in his lecture on Michael Hartnett, Durcan invokes Heidegger quoting Holderlin, to get to the heart of the work of his friend, a man often thought of as the natural genius of recent Irish poetry. But Durcan argues for his scholarly, in the true sense, understanding and appreciation of the work of great European artists like Sibelius and Lorca, with their complex approach to tradition and nationality, and language itself.
His final lecture concerns a future occupant of the Chair of Poetry, Harry Clifton, of whom he says: “To be a child of the Dublin suburbs in the 1950s and 60s was to be displaced, alien, disorientated, almost stateless.” He discusses Clifton’s marvellous poem Vaucluse, which ends in “. . . the hallowed place/Of sources, the sacred fountains/Of Petrarch and Rene Char.” But it also includes a consideration of Clifton’s engagement with a darker side of European culture, in his poem based on the life and death of the Romanian Jewish poet Benjamin Fondane, murdered in Birkenau in 1944, with Durcan drawing attention to Cilfton’s “imaginative conscience”.
Collectively these three books could be said to form a self-created imaginative conscience , and should be required reading for every serious student of poetry.