Poetry needs to be protected from agendas - Clifton


WRITING IS in danger of being overvalued at the moment, Ireland’s new Professor of Poetry, Dublin-born poet Harry Clifton said last night.

Speaking at the announcement of his appointment as Ireland Professor of Poetry 2010 in Dublin, the 58-year-old said he would protect the sanctity of the mythical poet’s teaching room from “the kind of people who have too strong an agenda”.

Mr Clifton had spoken after Taoiseach Brian Cowen announced his appointment. The Taoiseach said the arts had a big role to play in getting Ireland “back on track”.

“Ireland is a brand,” Mr Cowen said. “We must connect with that brand now and use it to give us the competitive advantage in a globalised world that is increasingly the same.”

Mr Clifton warned that if the “mythical room” was opened too much to the “university ideologue, the modulariser, the smurfitiser, the harvardiser”, the space would become “no more than a crush of market forces where the human mind becomes a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder”.

“I think that is the terrifying thing and it’s why teaching for me is a sacred activity,” he said.

During his three-year professorship, Mr Clifton will teach at three universities, Queen’s University Belfast, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin, for one academic term a year.

He will also make three formal presentations and hold workshops, lectures and readings for the public, receiving an annual stipend of €30,000 for the post.

Last night, Mr Clifton thanked the board of trustees who manage the chair for his appointment and said it was a “huge honour and totally unexpected”.

Pat Moylan, chairwoman of the Arts Council, said Clifton was “a gifted and internationally respected poet and a writer deeply committed to the art of poetry”.

She said she was deeply grateful to the previous post-holders for their tireless advocacy for poetry. Clifton is the fifth person to take the chair as Ireland Professor of Poetry. The first appointment was John Montague in 1998.

Outgoing professor Michael Longley was also present at last night’s event along with writers and poets including Theo Dorgan, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Hugo Hamilton and Micheal O’Siadhail and guests from the universities and from sponsoring bodies, Comhairle Ealaíon and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Mr Longley said he would advise Clifton to be honest with his students, but to “temper the wind to the shorn lamb”.

“You have to look very carefully at the faces of the students as they come in and work out fairly quickly how much they can take of the truth,” he said.

“Always look for something positive to say because it is a sin against the light to diminish another human being, especially a young human being.”


Harry Clifton was born in Dublin in 1952 but has spent much of his adult life living and working abroad – in Africa, Asia, Italy and France.

His first collection, The Walls of Carthage, was published by Gallery Press in 1977. Other books of poetry include Office of the Salt Merchant, The Liberal Cage, Comparative Lives. Night Train Through the Brenner, and The Desert Route: Selected Poemswhich was a London Poetry Society recommendation.

Secular Eden: Paris Notebooks 1994-2004won The Irish Times-Poetry Now Award in 2008. He has also published an account of a year spent living in the Abruzzi Mountains, On the Spine of Italy: A Year in the Abruzzi, and a collection of short stories, Berkeley’s Telephone, appeared in 2000.

He has been an International Fellow at the University of Iowa and poet-in-residence at the Frost Place in New Hampshire, and more recently he has been teaching in University College, Dublin. He was a recipient of the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 1981. He is married to the novelist Deirdre Madden and is a member of Aosdána.

Gerard Smyth