The art of balancing a divided perspective


THE ARTS:'I think I'm very short-winded, actually. I'm fated to write briefly,' says poet Bernard O'Donoghue, who teaches medieval English at Oxford University.

IT ISN'T EXACTLY unusual to hear an Irish voice at Oxford University: Seamus Heaney has been a larger-than-life presence there, as is Roy Foster; and there have been plenty of others down the decades. But having just spent a couple of days in the company of his Selected Poems, it's intriguing to meet the poet Bernard O'Donoghue in the somewhat rarefied surroundings of Wadham College. His work is located firmly in rural Ireland - more specifically, in rural Cork - yet the poet appears perfectly at ease amid the dreaming spires and golden quadrangles of this centre of English excellence.

As we settle in his comfortable book-lined study, the very model of an Oxford academic backdrop, he acknowledges as much with a rueful smile. "It's a luxury to belong to two places, I think," he says. ""I mean, Cullen - in north Cork - is home.

"That's where I grew up, and we go back often - more often, even, now that the kids are grown up. It's good to have two places. Two perspectives. When you're in one, you think you belong to the other one."

Despite the occasional anarchic lilt of Cork in his vowels, O'Donoghue has settled pretty thoroughly into life in Oxford, where he teaches medieval English. He cycles to work from his suburban home every morning. He's a regular at local Irish music events where, he says, "I sing the odd song if there's nobody better around".

He shows me the tree in the immaculately-manicured college garden under which, he says proudly, his daughter was married last summer; and he speaks with affection of his students who, he assures me lest I should somehow leave with a contrary impression, work extremely hard. O'Donoghue is a Fellow of Wadham College - which, he says with a self-deprecating shrug, means he must attend meetings about the state of the college's finances.

"It all goes over my head, really," he says, with another of his wry smiles But if the observational skill evident from his poetry is anything to go by, very little indeed slips beneath the O'Donoghue radar. His brevity, his topical references and his ironic understatement would appear to be the most contemporary of literary devices - yet by his own admission he owes a huge amount to the Anglo-Saxon elegies which he has loved since he first encountered them as part of his primary degree programme. They are, he says, "his model for the perfectly-formed short poem".

Can he explain their appeal? "I think it probably has something to do with my Catholic upbringing and all that kind of thing," he says. "The medieval Catholicism of Chaucer and Dante rang a bell; it was something that you felt you knew your way around, somehow. Anglo-Saxon poems like The Wandererand The Seafarerhave this rather graphic narrative bit which describes experience and feelings; and then they draw a moral at the end. That's the kind of shape that I think of as being what short poems are for. It has to do with balance and shape - the two parts of the poem."

O'Donoghue's interest in medieval narrative led him to publish, in 2006, a translation of the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It's a tale of magic, chivalry and seduction yet its poetic voice is, as he points out in his introduction, "immediately recognisable to us: ironic, commonsensical and realistic".

The same might be said of O'Donoghue's; and in a particularly astute review, Brendan Kennelly remarked that O'Donoghue's poetic world is one where stories are more important than ideas.

O'Donoghue nods vigorously at this. "He's right. He's absolutely right. He's always right. You'd like to think that some idea comes out of the story - but the story is always primary."

Another, more unlikely, influence were the anthologies which - once upon a time - introduced generations of Irish schoolchildren to literature in the English language. "I did the Inter Cert and Matric in Ireland before transferring to do A-levels in England," he says. "And I liked the old-fashioned way of organising the curriculum in Irish schools. Do you remember those volumes, Leaving Cert prose and Leaving Cert poetry and so on? You got lots of extracts from different periods. They were a good model, I think; and that also pushed me towards the brief - the short form of the lyric poem.

"I think I'm very short-winded, actually," he adds. " I'm fated to write briefly." Of all the literary forms, the short story is his favourite. "I'd love to write short stories and have sometimes tried - but have always failed, because they turn into these little poems. You can watch them taking shape under your hands and you can't stop it happening."

He had one story published "a very long time ago" by David Marcus in the Irish Press. "I just tried again recently. But I can't do it. I love reading them. I've just been reviewing Anne Enright's new book, and it's absolutely wonderful. I so envy people who can produce these telling lines and episodes - Frank O'Connor and the Cork short story writers, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro. It's a wonderful form and I think it is theform for the age. I said that to John McGahern once."

What was McGahern's response? "He blew me out of the water. He said, 'No, no, no - the novel is the modern form'."

O'Donoghue has produced four volumes of poetry in just under two decades. Was it difficult to select the Selected? "It was fairly uncontentious, really," he says. He and his editor began with the poems he usually reads at readings - pieces such as The Iron Age Boat at Caumatruish, The Day I Outlived My Father, In Millstreet Hospitaland Shells of Galice- and went on from there.

But some of his most powerful poems are ones he never reads in public. One such is Dogs , Would You Live For Ever?, an evocation of a dreadfully intimate moment in his mother's final illness which, after a graphic opening, ends with the bleak line "I'd prefer you to wait outside". The poem was recently anthologised by Ruth Padel in her book The Poem and the Journey; the question of just how up close and personal poetry can get is, however, clearly one of which O'Donoghue is keenly aware. "It's a big issue," he says. "Events and experiences belong to people.

"I remember Richard Hoggart noting in The Uses of Literacythat he had written something about his uncle. Afterwards he was talking to his brother - who said 'He wasn't very pleased about that'. And Hoggart said, 'Why not? It was extremely complimentary and positive - that was the whole point about it'. And the brother said, 'Yes, but you were taking something that belonged to him without his permission'. That's the interesting thing about writing. You have to be cautious. This has nothing to do with libel laws - it's a matter of what belongs to people."

ANOTHER GROUPof poems which have not made it into O'Donoghue's Selected Poemsare some pieces he wrote about the hunger strikers in the 1980s. "They were published by Gallery Press, but haven't been taken into subsequent books," he says. "I find that quite interesting - in terms of difficult subjects. The poets I admire most, generally speaking, are people who write about important things in the public domain. Poetry must do that, I think. It is a privatising and individualising activity, so it has to have a sense of the public realm. And there are lots of poets who do that. Tom Paulin, Michael Longley - even Heaney, who says he's not, by nature, inclined to. It is a kind of obligation."

Such large-scale questions about the nature of poetry, and the role it might or might not play in the modern world, are absorbing O'Donoghue even more than usual as he embarks on his latest project, writing A Very Short Introduction to Poetry. These pithy books are an Oxford institution in themselves; almost 200 titles, on a wide range of topics, which have sold more than two million copies in 25 languages.

"It's a weird project, actually," he says. "At 40,000 words, they're too long to be really short. That's the problem. It's hard to decide whether to do a history of poetry, or try to explore what poetry means in different societies and different cultures. And they are very different, aren't they? From Chinese poetry to medieval Irish ballads, which had a very different social function and meaning, to the way in which people tend to see poetry now - as a kind of universal therapy, really. Or try to distil poetry to its universal properties."

He looks appalled for a moment. Then he grins. "Maybe there aren't any."

Bernard O'Donoghue will give a reading in the Pavilion Theatre at 6.30pm on Apr 4 as part of the DúLaoghaire Poetry Now festival. HisSelected Poems , which is reviewed in Weekend Review this Saturday, is published by Faber & Faber at £12.99 in UK.