One Irish Poet’s Way: A Portfolio
An Interview with John F. Deane.
By Wendy McDowell
The Irish writer John F. Deane was the Burns Library Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies at Boston College this spring. Bulletin editor Wendy McDowell took the opportunity to sit down with Deane and discuss his poems, and his life as a poet.
In “Words of the Unknown Soldier,” the Jesus that you give to us is an undaunted spirit of the earth. Do you think that your poetic sensibility influences how you conceive of Jesus? Has that conception changed over time?
I was brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition on Achill Island with a very strict Jesus, a very strict God, and very strict rules and regulations. When I was young, I saw that as a kind of bridge that led from this world into the next world. But that bridge collapsed. It collapsed worldwide in the late 1960s, and it collapsed for me personally when my first wife, Barbara, died. Basically, I said, “None of this seems to make sense anymore.” So I began to reexamine things.
Words of the Unknown Soldier
He stumped us, this Jesus of yours, with his
walking on water, fandango, entrechat, glissade;
birthing, imagine! in a dark cave, out of all knowing; then
he walked the hard-baked earth of Palestine, but not
as you walk, or as I, for behind him the healing flowers grew,
the rosebay willowherb, chamomile, the John’s Wort;
we noted, too, that he could walk through walls,
appearing suddenly in the midst of folk as if
he were always there, waiting that they might notice him;
oh yes, this too, he walked on air
leaving them gawping upwards as he rose
higher and higher, like a skylark, walking
into the invisible. That was later. But humankind
will not be cheated of its prey for we claimed him,
hailing him fast to a tree, that he could not move
on water, earth or air, and we buried him in the underearth.
Where, it is said, he took to walking once again,
singing his larksong to the startled, to the stumped, dead.
But always it’s the figure of Jesus that has intrigued me and interested me. The more I read through the Gospels, the more I found this Jesus to be human and closer than he had ever been presented to me. So he has become a role model. When you’re born a Catholic, you are baptized, and at the age of 10 or 11 you are confirmed. The phrase is, “Now you’re a strong and perfect Christian.” For me, that never made any sense at all. I think you work to become a Christian, to become Christ-like.
As far as the poetry goes, I suppose I’m a pagan in the sense of loving nature. Ever since I was a boy on Achill Island, I have always been absolutely intrigued and in love with nature. So this poem has to do with my struggle to relate that love of nature with Jesus and the notion that this world is not the “be all and the end all,” an idea reflected in the call to renounce the world. The [biblical] figure that distresses me the most is John the Baptist, who I see as all strict rules and regulations and penance, and the figure that I love most is Jesus himself, who seems to represent almost the opposite of John the Baptist. St. Paul always intrigued me, as well, and the Pauline notion of the world being in travail while waiting for the redemption of the sons of man. All of these threads got me to thinking about the communion of saints and the communion of people in the Eucharist, which I believe means we’re all sharing in nature, and that nature itself is part of this growth and development of the original creation.
My hope and my dream is that even the fly we just squashed deliberately or accidentally will end up in heaven as part of the new creation. Jesus has always been the figure that carries it all for me, and he is continually a revelation. The revelation often comes through the poems, so that afterward I look back and say, “Yes, that’s Jesus” or “That’s a new angle on Jesus for me.” It comes down to the phrase unconditional love, all of that I see related to the figure of Christ.
Poetry for me is a major part of my way of living and looking at the world, so it’s not just an intellectual thing, or a hobby. I’m not even sure where that particular angle on Jesus came from, but I had been thinking about resurrection and what it means.
It is April,
dry and hot as summer;
like an overdressed society dame
at a chamber concert, and purple tulips
speak of cemeteries and sex;
tourists have a field-day,
avenues and alleyways laid out
as rationally as an old faubourg;
putting on a show,
sauntering by as if nothing mattered, not
now, perhaps not ever. Here
is Brancusi’s kiss,
as if to cleave forever;
Sartre and de Beauvoir
have nothing new to say
though miniature Japanese businessmen
pass by with cameras.
Listen to that chuckling sound
Saint-Saëns at it again,
doodling notes that touch
on the bones of sunshine,
piccolo-runs like tickled trout
finning their way towards death.
But we have comen
to stand in numb and silent thanks
that someone led us to the edge
and did not push
though he impelled himself beyond the limit
and told us of it.
No ego-surfeiting. No longer
softly by. Like leaf-fall. Like echo’s bones.
In “Footfalls,” your homage to Beckett, the form looks to me like stair steps, which gives the poem a lot of movement and fits with the subject matter. What led you to the form for this particular poem? More generally, how do you work with form? Does each of your poems find its own form?
This was very consciously done as an attempt to imitate footsteps. Footfalls is one of my favorite plays of Samuel Beckett. In the play, there is constant stepping over and back across the stage so that you can hear footfalls all the time. We wandered around Montparnasse on a very beautiful day looking for Sam Beckett’s grave, and it took us an awfully long time to find it. We found many other graves before his. I even asked a gravedigger if he knew where it was and he said, no, he’d never heard of it. When we eventually came to it, it was such a modest grave, which typified the man himself. And so this poem “Footfalls” naturally fell into that kind of shape, and I’m grateful to Beckett for it.
Normally, though, I don’t think I’m a great poet of form. I tend to write a fairly steady line, and I don’t tend to experiment with form. I did that a lot more earlier on, but at this stage, the poems tend to come in a particular length of line. If they happen to come in the 15-line area, I say, “Maybe this should be a sonnet,” and I work to make a sonnet out of it. I like the three-line form, as well, because there is a lot of variety in it. Also, I’m beginning to like the four-line stanza—that is, a long line varying with the shorter line, which gives me good scope.
But I’d like to think that the forms depend on the music in the poem, so I often try and shape the lines and shape the stanzas to echo the music. Music is hugely important for me in a poem. I was brought up on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The music of his poems may seem overdone now, but it’s so gratifying and tempting to stick with the music.
I never think about form very much until the poem is in its third or fourth draft, and then I begin to try and shape it. The theme of a poem often suggests a shape, though I thought the rage of concrete poetry in the 1970s and 1980s was temporary and artificial, since for me, it takes the thought out of line lengths and what they’re really for.
Eye of the Hare
There! amongst lean-to grasses and trailing vetch
catch her?—vagrant, free-range and alert;
I saw the eager watch-tower of the ears, I knew
the power of legs that would fling her into flight;
concentrate, he said, and focus: you must love
the soft-flesh shoulder-muscles where the bullet bites,
caress—and do not jerk—the trigger: be all-embracing, be
delicate. I had no difficulty with the saucepan lid
down at the end of the meadow, lifted, for practice,
against the rhododendron hedge; I could sight
its smug self-satisfaction and shoot a hole
pea-perfect and clean through. Attention to the hare
left me perplexed for I, too, relish the vision
I imaged in its round dark eye, of a green world
easy under sunlight, of sweet sorrel and sacred herbs—
and I turned away, embarrassed, and absolved.
So many of your poems have such a strong sense of place. Are these poems anchored in your memories or sense impressions? Is place imagined as much as it is experienced?
I have a fairly well known poem about climbing Croagh Patrick in the west of Ireland as a pilgrim and coming back down again. People always say how “real” it seems. But I’ve never been up there, so it’s not an actual experience!
I tell students that I’m trying to help to write poetry to absolutely ground a poem in sense impressions and to keep away as far as they can from the abstract. And I do notice an awful lot of things as I go around, listening and touching, always being aware of place. I think through the physical world. I told my students yesterday that a poem should grovel in the mud while flying with the angels. I haven’t done too well with the angels, mind you, but I’m good on the mud.
I think it’s because growing up on Achill Island, I was given so much freedom. During the summer holidays, you were told after breakfast: “Get out. Go away and come back in the evening.” I’d be out climbing cliffs, swimming and cycling and immersing myself in nature, without being aware of it, of course.
So much is due to my parents and the island life we lived. My father gave us his own world of the imagination by reading books to us and introducing us to the world of literature, while at the same time bringing us out, teaching us how to fish and to shoot, helping us to build things like tree houses and boats. He was also good with trees, and was the first one to introduce mushrooms on Achill Island. He would get all of these beautifully colored catalogues and we would go around selling produce to the hotels.
They say that your imagination is formed by the age of 10 or 11. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but I’m immensely grateful for having a physical awareness of the world around me, and it comes from my childhood. Achill Island is always available to me. I call upon the place all the time and it always reechoes with new insights and new perspectives. For instance, even climbing the trees as I used to do, suddenly I’ll remember the stickiness of resin on my fingers and how it would stay and grow black after a while. I have a good visual memory. Other than that, I have a pretty bad memory.
We have slipped by here, scarcely noticed,
for generations; the trees we planted,
oak and birch and eucalyptus,
scarce reached our knees those days, now they rise
stooping amongst scattered stars, against
turquoise deepening to blue-pink, emerald, cobalt;
we know—after the old folks with their hearth-music
abandoned us—generations are layered beneath, and still
the young hare leaps in the joy of morningflush
while the mismatched mistlethrush will cock
her speckled chest into the northern breeze:
as it was, we say, in the beginning.
I will turn soon into the broth of dreams,
blue-pink, emerald, cobalt, a blade of grass
of being, but for now I hold my hand
against the sky and watch a star
between my fingers, see the webbed flesh, feel the blood
pulsing, and listen to the soft sigh lingering.
for Michael Schmidt
You’ve been so deeply involved in the world of poetry in Ireland and promoting it. Now that you’ve traveled and lived other places, do you think the poetry community is unique in Ireland? Are there regional differences?
I’ve been involved in the European Academy of Poetry, which takes me on travels throughout Europe, so I’ve gotten to know an awful lot of poets around Europe. It’s the culture that throws up a different kind of poetry, but you find the same problems exist everywhere with regard to the dissemination of poetry, and the public’s interest, or lack of interest, in poetry.
I have found as a very vague generalization that countries where there are two languages, or three languages, tend to be richer in their poetry. I have a theory that Irish poets are stronger because we’ve got Gaelic as a sort of substratum in the language. I always think that the English stole our language from us, so we got our revenge by writing their language better than they do.
I think the interaction of language and cultures can be very fruitful. It can be difficult and hurtful, but can be very exciting, as well. For example, I find Belgian poets with the Waloon dialect are more conscious of the language that they’re actually writing in than they would be if it was more homogeneous. In places like Denmark, they’re conscious of one of their big audiences being German. Other countries like Finland, Norway, and Hungary are continually looking for translation outlets.
In Ireland, we’ve been trying to go forward by again having two languages Of course, so many of the great writers left Ireland but took Ireland with them internally. Joyce is the great example of that, but I find Irish Catholic references in Beckett. He might deny that, but there’s a cultural richness that has been carried through.
Thomas Kinsella is an Irish, Gaelic scholar and there are Gaelic rhythms behind his work. He edited one of the major anthologies of Gaelic poetry in Ireland. Seamus Heaney can speak a certain amount of Gaelic. I think his translation of Beowulf is a good example of the influence. He puts some Northern Ireland dialect into it, which gives it a very hefty, physical, local feeling that is part of the success of the work.
We’re still an island off an island off an island, but we’re maintaining our independence. I try to publish poetry in translation, but I can’t always sell it or get it reviewed in Ireland, though when we bring poets to Ireland from other countries, they get a good reception.
I’ve been in South America, in Colombia and Nicaragua, where the audiences for poetry are larger. Macedonia, as well. Countries that have been suppressed in some way seem to grasp for poetry. There, poets are more often writing for the people.
In Ireland, we have wonderful subsidies for poets, which can work to poetry’s detriment. I sometimes call it the censorship of indifference.
The truth is that conflict seems to help in creativity. If you get too peaceful, you’re going to put your feet up and not work. There was an awful lot written about the troubles in the North—though it does take some time for writers to assimilate conflicts and write about them. Galway Kinnell came out with a fine poem about 9/11, but well after the event.
It can be frustrating to think about the big questions, such as “What are the uses of poetry?” Next week, I plan to give my students Czeslaw Milosz’s poem called “Dedication,” in which he essentially asks, “What is poetry if it doesn’t save people or nations?”
However, making poetry matter doesn’t mean it has to be about war or violence. If it’s a good poem, it matters, even if it’s about a swan or a goose, or the difference between your American robin and the Irish robin. I like to think that though evil may seem to be weighing down the scale, if you put a good poem on the other side, it evens the balance a bit.
John F. Deane founded Poetry Ireland, the national poetry society, and The Poetry Ireland Review. He was elected secretary-general of the European Academy of Poetry in 1996. In Dogged Loyalty, his collection of essays on religious poetry, was published in 2006 (Columba), and his latest poetry collection is The Instruments of Art (Carcanet, 2005). A Little Book of Hours is forthcoming from Carcanet this year.
Wendy McDowell is an editor of the Bulletin.