Where do poems come from? John O’Donnell on his new work’s tribute to Caroline Walsh
‘The poem is finished, inspired by and – I have a wobbly religious faith, but of this I am certain – guided, from wherever she is now, by Caroline’s vibrant, judicious editorial hand’
Where do poems come from? Four decades (and three collections) since I started, I still don’t know; and if you think this question is of interest to the reader, it is of even greater interest to the writer. The best I can say is that, like the old ad for the drink Martini, a poem can come anytime, anyplace, anywhere
December 22nd, 2011. I awake muzz-headed and examine last night’s evidence: a selfie, taken in a city-centre bar, of Claire Kilroy and Paul Murray and me, grinning scribblers on a pre-Christmas bender; the artist Gary Coyle is in the foreground, mugging for the camera. I smirk and send the picture, and Claire comes back, full of bonhomie and joyous wishes for the season. But later that day she texts me again: Caroline Walsh is dead.
During the first of many sleepless nights following this shocking news I lie awake, reading; in an article about the solstice at Newgrange I learn that public access to the cave paintings in Lascaux is to be even further limited, since these breath-taking pictures are being taken from us by our breath. I think of Caroline again, and in the bleak midwinter darkness a low-watt bulb, cartoon-like, pops on in my head: how could the cave-painters even see what they were doing in the far reaches of those caves – and how did those who lived with them get to view these fabulous painted beasts – without somebody holding up a light?
There is paper and a pen beside my bed, in case of “emergencies”; and here is something starting to emerge, “entering the loneliness” as Ted Hughes puts it in The Thought Fox. I start to write. The poem comes quickly, fluently; by dawn I have a draft down, and although I make one or two small revisions later on (and change the title, at Claire’s suggestion, from A Sprig of Juniper to Lamp) the poem is finished, inspired by and – I have a wobbly religious faith, but of this I am certain – guided, from wherever she is now, by Caroline’s vibrant, judicious editorial hand.
Where do poems come from? Four decades (and three collections) since I started, I still don’t know; and if you think this question is of interest to the reader, it is of even greater interest to the writer. The best I can say is that, like the old ad for the drink Martini, a poem can come anytime, anyplace, anywhere. The poems in this latest collection, On Water, are no different. One was pressed into my hand by a hawker in Hanoi (Zippo); another came rising up out of a radio match commentary in West Kerry (Dun An Oir). Waiting for a haircut, I read Fintan O’Toole’s article about Irish who feature in the Bard’s plays, and wondered if he’d ever visited here, there being no proof he did, but – as one judge used to say – no proof he didn’t either (Shakespeare in Ireland). The download speed is variable; while Lamp took a few hours, it was more than 25 years before I could write The Wave, a poem dedicated to those who perished in the Fastnet Yacht Race in 1979. However, at least now I recognise (I think) the signs that something’s coming, an impulse that for me is as much physical as mental, my breath shortening and my heartbeat quickening as the urge – no, better say the need – begins again.
The rest, of course, is silence and sitting in a chair; far, far more application and perspiration than inspiration. Making the original connection may be regarded as an occult craft, but there’s a hoodoo even talking about this voodoo, it being bad luck to say too much about what you’re working on right now. Arlo Guthrie described song-writing as being “like fishing in a stream; you put in your line and hope you catch something”, noting ruefully “I don’t think anyone downstream from Bob Dylan ever caught anything”, and you certainly don’t want to scare them off.
There are so many rods along the riverbank these days it’s sometimes a wonder there’s anything left to catch. Perhaps as your career progresses you head further out to sea, in search of bigger fish. I once likened a poem to a flying fish, a gleaming iridescence that startles by becoming suddenly airborne. In this collection, however, the poem becomes a whale which “briefly surfaces” before descending again into “the unfathomable, a deep darker than ink” (Scrimshaw).
Christmas Eve 2011. Outside University Church after Caroline’s funeral we sniffle and hug and shiver and stamp our feet, our breaths wafting across the freezing air like ghosts. There are so many of us who loved her; now, inexplicably, she’s gone, a light gone out. This is my second funeral in as many weeks, since earlier in the month a great friend and legal colleague passed away, joining two other friends and colleagues barely 50 years of age or less who have died in recent years and who also feature in this collection, in a sequence of elegies entitled Last Orders. “Poetry”, Ted Hughes said, “is a way of talking to your loved ones when it’s too late”, though I wonder if the living become jealous of the poems written for the dead. Maybe it’s inevitable a later collection of poems will include more laments than the sweet lyrics of an early volume. There are light moments in here (The Lyrebird, A Wedding Guest) but there are also many shades. In Wilson, the narrator plays golf with his aging father but can’t help thinking of “the other hole, the opened/ ground where we’ll all finish”. The title poem On Water hints at the miraculous, imagining a young Jesus frightening the life out of his mother by disappearing on a visit to the beach, only to be found later walking on water, but the sense of the miraculous is tempered by his mother’s sad awareness of “what was yet to come”.
Does a collection need a “theme”? Not necessarily; the poems in here were assembled over 10 years, and I wasn’t conscious of writing to an agenda, though when I step back to look at the mosaic of a collection, certain patterns emerge. Such patterns are to some extent dictated by the fraught process of selection, since inevitably there are some fish which don’t make it into the net, though I’m lucky to have Pat Boran of Dedalus Press at my shoulder, suggesting which ones I might throw back. The issue of sequencing is also serious, echoing Coleridge’s definition of poetry as the best words in the best order.
And then? After the hoop-la of launch night, and the readings and the interviews, and the sheer pleasure of holding your own book in your hand (the cover a wonderful picture by Gary Coyle) what next? Seamus Heaney famously said writing was about three things: getting started, keeping going, and getting started again. Since Seamus died in 2013 I’ve only written one poem. I don’t know what happens now: maybe lots of things, maybe nothing. All I can do is to cast my line into the water, and wait.
John O’Donnell’s latest collection, On Water, is published by Dedalus Press.