A hell of a month for poetry – An Irishman’s Diary about Dante, Yeats, and Seán Haldane

June a sunny month for the poets

Dante’s statue in Florence. Complicated birthday calculations. Photograph: Imagestock

Dante’s statue in Florence. Complicated birthday calculations. Photograph: Imagestock


This is a very big month for poetry, what with the impending 150th birthday of WB Yeats (June 13th) and the 750th birthday of Dante (sometime around now – see below). Meanwhile, there’s also the election of the latest Oxford professor of poetry, which threatens to overshadow the drama of the search for a new Fifa president.

All right, that may be overstating the news value of the Oxford vote slightly. But in the election before last – 2009 – the story did explode out of the arts pages. First Derek Walcott had to withdraw his candidacy after allegations of sexual harassment earlier in his career were anonymously circulated. Then Ruth Padel – the first woman elected to the chair in its 300-year history – was forced to resign within days after it emerged she had done the circulating.

The incident underlined an old witticism about academic politics – that the competition is so vicious because the stakes are so low. The professorship carries a salary of £12,000. Unlike the poet laureate job, it doesn’t even come with a butt of sack; although when asked to run for it once, Philip Larkin recoiled from the prospect of endless wine receptions – “sherry drill with important people” – and ruled himself out.

Still, the contest never lacks candidates. There are five this time, and among those trying to emulate Seamus Heaney (professor from 1989 to 1994) and Paul Muldoon (1999-2004) is Seán Haldane, who, if not entirely Irish, will soon be more Irish than Aer Lingus, at least.

Born in England, Haldane grew up in Belfast and later spent many years in Canada before returning to Britain. He describes himself as a “human compass”, his ancestry being “a quarter each English, German, Scottish, and Irish”.

So Ireland can claim a 25 per cent shareholding, and unlike the stake in the airline, we probably won’t be divesting ourselves soon. On the contrary, if Haldane continues to distinguish himself in the literary world, we may end up claiming majority ownership.

As it is, he enjoys acclaim both as a poet and crime novelist. And his commitment to the country of his childhood is evidenced by a Cork-based publishing house, Rún Press, which he set up a couple of years ago to rescue the work of forgotten or neglected poets. Among its first subjects was former Irish diplomat Valentin Iremonger.

This, mind you, is all part-time work. Haldane decided early in life that he never wanted to make a living from poetry, not that many do. By profession he’s a neuroscientist, and has a psychotherapy practice in London’s Harley Street. This makes him an intriguing combination. Not only does he believe that good poems “can send shivers down our spine”, he can also explain the science involved.

I have met him only once, when helping launch the Iremonger book. And before anyone leaks suggestions to the contrary, let me state categorically that no money changed hands. But I found him a very affable gentleman, who clearly loves poetry. So I urge all the Oxford graduates who read this column – that’s thousands of you, I know – to vote for him, if you haven’t already. He is very much the outsider in a field led by the Nigerian Wole Soyinka. But the campaign runs until June 17th. You never know.

In the meantime, the aforementioned WB will be having his big birthday celebrated extensively on this and the neighbouring island. Among the main events here is “Yeats Day”, in and around Sligo, although naturally in this era of event inflation, the term “Yeats Day” does not imply a 24-hour time frame. On the contrary, it’s a four-day festival, from June 11th-14th. But it will of course include an actual birthday party, on the actual date, at Lisadell House (See YeatsDay.com).

As for Dante, the dating of his birthday is more complicated. We don’t even know he was born in 1265; that’s an extrapolation from his work. He also implied his star sign was Gemini, ie mid-May to mid-June. But this vagueness can only encourage event inflation. There’s even talk of Dante-themed celebrations continuing until the 700th anniversary of his death, which can at least be more accurately dated, to 13th/14th September, 1321.

In the meantime, events at the Italian Cultural Institute in Dublin are building to an interim peak with a series of talks this week and next (iicdublino@esteri.it). I especially like the sound of one on June 10th by Daragh O’Connell from UCC. He will discuss the medieval poet’s influence on modern popular culture. Hence the title – “Dante’s Disco Inferno”.