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recommended by John F Deane

The Irish poet and writer finds inspiration in the work of friends and fellow poets who combine relishing the wonders of the physical universe with a mystic, religious side – all best discussed over a few pints

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You have chosen a very interesting selection of poetry anthologies.

I chose these books because they are ones that both move me very deeply because of their content and form, but also because they stir me to keep my own work going. They are inspirational in every sense of the word.

Why did you pick the Selected Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins?

I have been a fan of Hopkins ever since somebody gave me the Selected Poems. This was when I was 28 or 29, having completed a BA in English literature but still not having any great sense of what poetry was actually all about. Strangely, I hadn’t read Hopkins during my degree. I was absolutely taken, for the first time in my life, by the music of ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ and it was the music that got me first because of the sensations going up and down my spine of the absolutely vivid revelation of what language can do. I remember spending most of the night, until four or five o’clock in the morning, trying to figure out what the poem was actually all about. It was a moment of extraordinary excitement for me.

An epiphanic moment?

Absolutely, a long moment. So it began to stir me and I read the Selected Poems from start to finish, trying to figure out each poem, because it wasn’t easy for me in those days, realising that not only were they absolutely great poems, but they spoke to me about what the deepest foundations of my own life were. I was brought up a very strict Roman Catholic in the west of Ireland and Hopkins appealed to me from that perspective. I was brought up in an extremely beautiful area – wild, passionate, huge Atlantic breakers and cliffs and so on – and I was free to roam as a child. So that Hopkins’s sense of the wonder of the physical universe also appealed deeply to me, and a lot of what I have been doing in my own work is actually trying to revisit Christianity rather than Catholicism and see how that relates to the physical universe in which I live and still take great pleasure.

Do you identify with the juxtaposition in Hopkins’s work of being both a poet and a priest?

Yes, I do. What seems to touch me most is his sense of Christ as a presence, an almost physical presence, and he equates that quite often with the physical universe: with the beauty of whales, for instance, where his lovely poems delight in nature. It always refers back to Christ, and for me, because of a certain loss of faith in the Roman Catholic tradition, I still wanted to hold on to what I found beautiful, lovely and moving in it, and that seems to boil down to the person of Christ and his words and language. Of course, Hopkins came to Dublin and wrote those wonderful, moving last sonnets – the desperate, tragic, sad sonnets – here in Dublin. So I have always felt a huge empathy with him.

Do you relate to his compassion, in a poem like ‘Felix Randal’ for example?

Absolutely. These poems are desperate attempts to find a relationship with the world. He was an extremely intelligent, bright probing man and in late 19th-century England and in Ireland that sort of exploration was not acceptable: you stood by what you were given and that was it. So he was exploring. The language that he uses conveys that physical sense – it is almost granite-like, hewn and still fluid. I find all of that mesmerising.

It’s his insistence on the sound of his poetry that’s so amazing.

It’s frighteningly good and inimitable. When I was writing early on, I found I was imitating Hopkins, and it took quite a long time to recognise that was what I was doing. And of course it was a wonderful failure.

It’s interesting, the influence of other voices on a poet. Presumably it’s part of the creative process?

Yes, it is. For a long period of time I had the poetry bug but something wasn’t working; I was doing the Hopkins thing and it wasn’t working, but then by sheer chance I came across Tomas Tranströmer, the old Penguin copy, in English translation by Robert Bly.

So we are looking at Tomas Tranströmer’s New Collected Poems?

Yes. The very first poem is called ‘Preludes’: ‘Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams’. That was totally new to me, just like T S Eliot’s poem ‘Let us go then you and I…’ It stopped me in my tracks and I found myself opening up my imagination, trying not to force what I was doing, trying to let the language and the experience work for themselves without either imposing my Christian viewpoint on it or a Hopkins influence on it. The words that were used about my work after that experience were that I had become permeable, as opposed to impermeable. Permeable allows the world in and language can look after itself. I know that I owe that opening of my imagination to reading Tomas Tranströmer.

Subsequently, I wrote a poem and it was the beginning of writing anything good. It was called ‘Winter in Mead’. My wife had died, and in 1981, about a year after her death, came this wonderful winter of snow and frost. It lasted for three or four weeks and the physical aspect of the world around me had altered utterly, and my own life had altered utterly with her death. I allowed, for the first time, the images around me to speak my pain and suffering and to speak the change in the world. The poem has no imposition of my own world-view or intellect on it; it just allows the language to speak for itself.

It just is.

Yes, so what enthrals me about Tomas Tranströmer’s work is how it just speaks and it doesn’t impose anything. I would see that as a step forward in my own interest and excitement in poetry.

Would you agree that his clear, seemingly simple poems reveal a mystic side?

Oh yes. That is very true. I’ve got to know the man since then. He suffered a severe stroke many years ago. He’s coping with it, but he cannot write. But his spirits are high, he travels a great deal and he has a wonderful wife who takes care of him.

The third poet who I came into contact with was Thomas Kinsella.

Yes, let’s look at his Collected Poems.

I became very friendly with Thomas Kinsella by a series of accidents. I had studied him at school and even taught him but could not understand him properly and felt he was doing something that I would need to do, although I couldn’t follow exactly what it was. So I spent a number of years speaking to him, on and off, and studying him, and even publishing him in a wonderful series of poems that he has done called the ‘Peppercanister’. They are maybe 20-24 pages in length, where he explores a particular experience or viewpoint and they came out over the years in beautifully produced limited editions and now they are collectors’ items. They are absolutely delightful pieces, going deeper and deeper into the personal life of a person living in Ireland, coping with ordinary things but also coping with pain and suffering.

Is it his earlier or later work?

It’s his middle period. They began with a very strange piece called ‘Butcher’s Dozen’ which was a response to the Widgery report in response to the shooting dead of 13 people in Derry.

This came out of a very angry pamphlet, which was selling for a shilling, and it actually turned out to be a format for working on interim poems that has worked enormously well for him. He then dealt with various topics like his early years, his relationship with his father, the changes that Dublin city was undergoing, the relationship to his own illnesses and the darkness that he saw around him. So each Peppercanister as it came out was different, was a development of the earlier work. So I saw a man in the process of making poetry, not philosophical but almost scalpel-like in its dissection of what living is all about. And the language is very simple, it also uses the kind of openness that Tranströmer has but with a very strong intellectual base to it. The professionalism of it was just so wonderful. I founded Poetry Ireland partly to say to audiences and to poets, let’s put poetry on a more rational, developmental basis, rather than just people coming into pubs and listening to poets muttering while the till is tinkling and people are coughing. The poet might be lucky to get a Guinness for his work.

I envy the Irish tradition of poetry reading aloud in pubs. We don’t have it so much in England, sadly, although it’s increasing.

You don’t? There are lots of poetry readings and they are very good for sustaining poetry here. Kinsella influenced poetry with this notion of poetry not as just haphazard lyrics, a collection of occasional lyrics, but lyrics that gather and grow to form a complete study of living. We’ve also had some interesting discussions on the idea of God and he has often challenged me in that area.

So he’s not a religious poet?

No, indeed, but in his later work he has been certainly circling the notion, which is exciting. He certainly is touching on the subject.

Moving on to The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert. An American poet who avoided fame and fortune?

Yes, that’s true and I don’t think he’s very well known over here. Again, I came across him by sheer accident. I was in Boston teaching and a very good friend of mine slipped this book under my door when he was leaving. The book was The Great Fires and it set me alight because I had been trying to be too intellectual in my poetry and too probing. This guy is passionate in the extreme, his poetry is sheer, contained passion. So much so that he doesn’t normally divide poems into stanzas of any kind. They just begin and go strongly from start to finish without any divisions and this form in itself I found interesting. He goes to the heart of the matter very very quickly and The Great Fires were basically the passions in his heart.

Would you say he’s a romantic poet then?

Yes and no. He was born and brought up in Pittsburg and The Great Fires were the fires from the factories round about. But these he does apply to his own spirit, even some of the titles: ‘The White Heart of God’, ‘Between Aging and Old’, ‘Thinking About Ecstasy’. These are not just passing lyrics; they’re deeply examining the world. Refusing Heaven is the title of another book of his, so again we are back to the Hopkins thing of absolutely relishing the physical universe around him – though the opposite of Hopkins in that Hopkins was certainly pushing heaven and the rest. As well as that, Gilbert travelled a lot in the East, Japan and Europe and his imagery is quite rich and varied. As well as this passion, excitement and almost Promethean urgency in his work, there is a soft centre of love. He lived with a woman called Michiko and he wrote some absolutely delightful lyrics dedicated to her. Like R S Thomas, who wrote a few marriage poems that strike an immediate note of intimacy, while letting go of this urge to sort out the universe, and just say: but in the meantime I have loved and how wonderful that all is. Gilbert is still alive. He’s a very insightful and honest man.

Gilbert once said: ‘I didn’t visit places, I lived places.’

That is beautiful. This is the passion which I admire.

That leads me to Afterlife by Pádraig J Daly. I must admit, he’s a very close friend and he’s a priest and a poet like Hopkins. He’s a very busy man running a parish here in Dublin. We have laboured in the poetry vineyard together for years and years, and our poetry is kind of close. He’s published a lot of collections down the years, but this one, Afterlife, is his newest one and I would classify it as a spiritual classic. It is, in our time, a phenomenon of optimism and belief. There are no easy answers – he has gone through questioning periods of despair and despondency for obvious reasons, especially in Ireland, a country that is riddled with scandals, pain and suffering. But this collection has poem after poem that is grounded in friends and family and the world around him. The optimism, the beauty and simplicity of the language create an absolutely magnificent world-view at the moment and excite me immensely. So I’m jealous of him.

Is Afterlife reminiscent of R S Thomas as well?

Not really. R S Thomas was coming at God, most of the time, from a negative point of view. He was struggling with God and with belief. Pádraig’s work has never struggled with belief, as such, but it has struggled with the view of God as a loving God. So that he reached his lowest spiritual and emotional depths when he found that the people he was dealing with were suffering so much that he felt forced to see God as a cruel God.

We have in Ireland a so-called sport that is known as coursing, and it’s where a hare is let loose and the hounds chase the hare. The collection that Pádraig produced was called The Voice of the Hare and the poems began to shout at God and say how can you possibly do this sort of thing? So it was never a question of faith, it was an examining of what kind of God this was. But he has advanced from that period and come back with Afterlife.

Has he reconciled himself to a more loving God?

He has and maybe we all do that as we get older. In fact, I will be out with him tomorrow evening. We go out together for relaxation, which means into a pub and a few pints. After a while we discuss poetry, and he has been a mentor for me in many ways and it’s nice to be a friend of somebody who is developing all the time.

It’s always interesting hearing a priest having those struggles because it makes them all the more human.

Yes. Well, it’s the struggle that makes poetry rather than the complacency. Poetry can touch the spirit of somebody else with the depths of experience. Poetry has been a way of coming to terms with life. I’ve been trying to live as honestly as I can. To earn a poem it can come as a gift. The people will appreciate it and maybe see a new angle to it. A poem is a learning process and it teaches me something about myself and the world we live in, and that’s always an excitement.

Do you sometimes get the feeling you don’t know where your poetic voice comes from?

Yes, I do and it’s magical. When the form works, I think: whatever, whoever, thank you for that!

Interview by Rebecca Slack

April 9, 2011

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John F Deane

John F Deane

John F Deane was born on Achill Island, County Mayo in 1943. He founded Poetry Ireland – the national poetry society – and The Poetry Ireland Review in 1979. He was also the founder of Dedalus Press, which he ran until 2004. He is the author of many collections of poetry and some fiction, including three novels, Where No Storms Come, In the Name of the Wolf and Undertow, and two collections of short stories, The Coffin Master and The Heather Fields.

John F Deane

John F Deane

John F Deane was born on Achill Island, County Mayo in 1943. He founded Poetry Ireland – the national poetry society – and The Poetry Ireland Review in 1979. He was also the founder of Dedalus Press, which he ran until 2004. He is the author of many collections of poetry and some fiction, including three novels, Where No Storms Come, In the Name of the Wolf and Undertow, and two collections of short stories, The Coffin Master and The Heather Fields.