Philip Cummins – Freelance Journalist, Writer, Editor and Researcher

X marks the (black) spot: John McAuliffe’s problematic Irish Times review of Vona Groarke’s ‘X’

Posted in Media Comment, Opinion & Analysis, Poetry by Philip Cummins on March 18, 2014

In his review of Vona Groarke’s X, published in last weekend’s edition of the Irish Times, poet, critic and full- time senior academic John McAuliffe acknowledges that both he and Ms. Groarke work together in Manchester. What Mr. McAuliffe fails to disclose, however, are the possible financial implications that writing such a glowing review could have for himself, his University of Manchester colleague and the academic department in which they both work, writes Philip Cummins

John McAullife: Poet, Irish Times poetry critic and co- director of University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing.

FRIENDS REVIEWING FRIENDS: it’s considered something of a no- no within the notoriously tight- knit literary circles of the arts community. Much as those in the medical profession consider  administering to a friend or family member as unethical, eyebrows are sometimes raised when practice of a similar nature occurs in both the arts and academia.

And so it is with Manchester- based Listowel native John McAuliffe, the Irish Times’ sole poetry critic, whose laudatory review of X- the latest collection of poems by his fellow Gallery Press poet and University of Manchester colleague Vona Groarke, which Ms. Groarke launched last month at their place of work in Manchester- appeared in last week’s weekend edition of the Irish Times.

Though I have yet to read Ms. Groarke’s latest collection of poems, I have followed Ms. Groarke’s immensely enjoyable work with interest since the 2006 publication of Juniper Street, which like 2009′s Spindrift, is a remarkable collection of poems.

Certainly, avid readers of contemporary poetry don’t need me to point out that Ms. Groarke is undoubtedly one of the leading Irish poets of her generation; a poet of genuine heart and originality and a poet who belongs to mid- career Irish poets of a certain generation who are long overdue critical attention and critical revision; those poets that arrived after Paul Muldoon, ncluding Sinéad Morrissey, Leontia Flynn, Caitríona O’Reilly, Peter Sirr, Conor O’Callaghan, David Wheatley, Pat Boran, Patrick Chapman and, indeed, John McAuliffe, to name but a few.

All that said, Mr. McAuliffe’s Irish Times review of X, is problematic, highlighting the reasons why academics should never review nor assess the work or wares of their colleagues, particularly in the national and international press.

X marks the (black) spot

In the fifth paragraph of his glowing review of Ms. Groarke’s book, under the sub- heading Different note, Mr. McAuliffe appropriately declares a degree of interest, however slight, in acknowledging that both he and Ms. Groarke are colleagues in University of Manchester (“Groarke, with whom this reviewer works in Manchester, is much more occupied by time than by places in X.”) where both poets teach an MA course together.

However, Mr. McAuliffe, a full- time senior academic in University of Manchester and co- director of University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing, fails to explore or disclose the possible financial implications for University of Manchester in publishing such a positive and favorable review of Ms. Groarke’s book in a national and international title such as the Irish Times.

Funding implications

Under the Research Excellence Framework (REF), 20% of UK government funding for academic departments depends on impact, the defined assessment criteria of which an online document entitled Panel criteria and working methods. The document expands on “impact” in more detail on page 89 of Part 2D: Main Panel Criteria, which are available to read on-line here.  Panel D defines and assess English Literature and Creative Writing. Read here.

Termed as “indicative range of impacts” on page 89 of the above document, the “indicative range of impacts” include the following:

Civil society: Informing and influencing the form and content of associations between people or groups to
illuminate and challenge cultural values and social assumptions.

Cultural life: Creating and interpreting cultural capital in all of its forms to enrich and expand the lives, imaginations and sensibilities of individuals and groups.

Public discourse: Extending the range and improving the quality of evidence, argument and expression to
enhance public understanding of the major issues and challenges faced by individuals and
society.

The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which the REF is replacing, will assess research that has taken place from 2008 – 2013 inclusive. An Irish Times review published in 2014, then, would contribute towards the next REF, which has a census date of November / December 2018.

The REF assess submissions according to the following criteria:

  • Four star: Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
  • Three star: Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which falls short of the highest standards of excellence.
  • Two star: Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
  • One star: Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
  • Unclassified: Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment.

Suffice to say, then, that positive and favorable reviews in the national and international press of a work published by a practicing academic might, conceivably, constitute as an “indicator of esteem” and may carry “impact” for an academic department, such as the English Language and Literature department in University of Manchester.

August Kleinzahler

In an excellent essay entitled ‘Blurbonic Plague’, featured in The Outnumbered Poet, published posthumously by The Gallery Press, the late Dennis O’Driscoll writes fearlessly of what he perceives as the “insider dealing” within the world of poetry. Friends reviewing friends in a mutual appreciation society. The policy among peers, writes O’Driscoll, is “You blurb me, I’ll review you.”

In the Winter of 2013, the Irish Times published Mr. McAuliffe’s review of The Hotel Oneira by American poet August Kleinzahler. Suffice to say that Mr. McAuliffe laid the praise on thick. Here is an extract from Mr. McAuliffe’s review:

“Kleinzahler is a one-off, and this new book is as good as ever, with spiky portraits (and self-portraits) alongside the American landscapes that have become his speciality, moving easily and mysteriously between domestic close-ups of the weather and noodling riffs on the state of the modern world.”

Compare the above extract from Mr. McAuliffe’s Irish Times review of August Kleinzahler’s collection with the below extract:

“John McAuliffe’s got the gift. Mark the name…This guy’s the total package, as we say over here about our young, star athletes.”

The back cover of A Better Life, Mr. McAuliffe’s first collection of poems, features the above quote as a blurb. The author of the blurb? That’s right: August Kleinzahler.

Mr. McAuliffe, as Co- Director of the Centre for New Writing, has also hosted August Kleinzahler at least one reading in University of Manchester’s Martin Harris Centre.

Nowhere in his review of August Kleinzahler’s The Hotel Oneira, printed in the Irish Times, does Mr. McAuliffe declare his interest by stating explicitly that he has previously accepted a glowing endorsement of his own work from Mr. Kleinzahler, as published as a blurb on his first collection, nor does he state that he has hosted a reading of Kleinzahler’s work.

The honest critic

Vona Groarke’s X, which is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

In my honest opinion, Mr. McAuliffe- who is a fine poet and an incisive critic, neither of which yours truly needs to point out- should have refused to review Ms. Groarke’s book on the grounds that a review of Ms. Groarke’s book could, possibly, have financial implications for the academic department in which both he and Ms. Groarke teach on an MA course together. Instead of reviewing X himself, Mr. McAuliffe should have, in my opinion, acted in the interest of editorial transparency and impartiality by outsourcing the review to a critic who is not an academic colleague of Ms. Groarke’s.

Regrettably, Mr. McAuliffe’s review of X is an unfortunate reminder of the level of dishonest reviewing that is endemic in the arts, particularly in the small, cliquish circle of poetry.

Furthermore, Irish Times Arts & Books editor Fintan O’Toole, an outstanding journalist who has written fearlessly about cronyism in Irish society during his long and distinguished career as an Irish Times columnist, doesn’t seem to have any issue with Mr. McAuliffe’s review; like Mr. McAuliffe, Mr. O’Toole doesn’t seem to have considered the possible financial implications for University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing in publishing such a favorable review of the work of an academic colleague of Mr. McAuliffe’s.

Indeed, Mr. O’Toole’s weak editorial decision to commission Mr. McAuliffe as the Irish Times’ sole poetry critic confirms my belief that commissioning a variety of freelance critics, as was the policy under the Irish Times’  late, great and much- missed literary editor Caroline Walsh, is the only way to make sure that books reviewed in the Arts & Books pages are impartial and that the Arts & Books pages carry a broad spectrum of critical analysis.

Speaking to RTÉ Radio One some time before his passing, Dennis O’Driscoll wrote of the incestuous nature of Irish poetry and the lack of tough, cold, honest reviewing:

“I think that unless people speak the truth about the books that they get for review and they’re not bearing in mind rows they’ve had with people or that the publisher who published the book [for review] rejected a book of theirs or whatever…I think there’s a tremendous amount of dishonest reviewing and it takes a lot of courage and, I think, a lot of integrity and support on behalf of the editor you’re writing for, as well, to do honest reviews. I think it’s a tremendously important activity, but it does cost you friends and a lot of things, really.”

X, certainly, marks the spot for the ever- deepening graves of literary criticism and journalistic integrity.

He said / She said: The obsession with gender in literature and the hypocrisies of feminism

Posted in Books, Features, Fiction, Poetry, Publishing by Philip Cummins on March 11, 2014

The obsession that readers, writers and critics have with gender in literature separates the amateur sociologists from the true, indiscriminate readers of literature who are  interested in nothing other than the work itself, writes Philip Cummins

A graphic from Google’s Ngram Viewer, which uses Google Books’ extensive collection of five million texts published over the last two- hundred years to track trends in literature


SOME YEARS AGO, 
I attended a twelve- week night- class in Dublin, which focused on American literature. I had finished my undergraduate degree and, during the summer months, I found myself craving for the intellectual stimulation that was severely lacking in my mundane summer day- job before I returned to university for postgraduate studies.

Effectively a reading group of twelve participants, a tutor led the night class. As a class, we assumed that the tutor knew more about American literature than we did. We read many books of fiction and poetry from various periods of American literature. One book that we had read as part of what was a diverse reading list was Mark Twain’s Great American Novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel that I re- read, at least, once a year.

During the class on Twain’s novel, the tutor had diverted away from the core characteristics of the novel that the class were due to discuss: Twain’s brilliant use of American demotic, the colourful characters that Finn encounters on his uniquely American journey and the politics of the age during Twain’s time of writing.

Instead, the tutor indulged in what can only be described as a mildly coherent tirade about gender issues in literature, which the class were not expected to discuss and for which we weren’t instructed to prepare notes. Though it was totally out- of- kilter with the initial discussion of race politics in the novel, our tutor kept charging, despite confused glances by the participants in the room, before rounding off the pseudo- academic, albeit utterly erratic, spiel with a “Columbo moment”:

“…which begs the question (raises and wags finger, inquisitively, turns towards the class to deliver the killer question)...could The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been written…by a woman?”

Only during football matches and occasional editions of TV3′s The Vincent Browne Show or RTÉ‘s Prime Time have I had the impulse to swear profusely at the very top of my voice; believe me, dear reader, when I tell you that I had to resist every impulse in my body to scream profanities out- loud and smash the chair in which I was sitting to smithereens.

Whether or not a woman wrote or didn’t write Twain’s masterpiece- for better or worse- seemed to me totally irrelevant to the novel and, in a broader sense, to literature. Twain’s novel was written by a man, which is a fact that cannot be changed by anyone- not even our learned tutor. Did it matter to me, personally, that a man wrote Huck Finn? No. Would it have changed my opinions or my perspective of Twain’s novel if I had found out that the novel had, in fact, been written by a woman? No. Why? For the simple reason that I do not believe gender to be an influencing or deciding factor in the quality of literature that can be written by any human being nor is it for me, personally, an influencing or deciding factor in the literature that I choose to read. Gender, quite simply, doesn’t figure for me in the books that I choose to read nor does race, creed or sexual orientation. There are great books written by men, there are great books written by women; there are woeful books written by men, there are woeful books written by women. We shouldn’t categorise literature by men and literature by women: we should treat a book based on the contents between the covers, irrespective of whether that book has been written by a man or by a woman.

Gender: why does it really matter to readers, writers and critics?

I have never once understood the obsession- and I mean obsession- that some readers, writers and critics have with gender in literature, specifically the gender of the author. Again, it does not matter to me in the slightest that ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ was written by a man nor would it matter to me if it was written by a woman: it is still a masterpiece that has not been equaled by its author. Similarly, it doesn’t matter to me that ‘The Fish’ was written by a woman nor would it matter to me if it was written by a man: it is still one of the most unique and remarkable poems written in the 20th century. I don’t read Derek Mahon’s work and think “I am reading a male poet” nor do I read Elizabeth Bishop’s work and think “I am reading a female poet”.

If anything, it is interesting that the same people who campaigned- and quite rightly so, in my view- for the gender specific and now- outmoded poetess to be discontinued in usage and, instead, substituted for the gender neutral poet, when referring to male and female poets, are now insisting on a distinction between male and female poets, specifically in their reading habits. In fact, I know an individual who will scan the contents of a poetry anthology and will count the ratio of male authors to female authors; if there is not a sufficiently equal ratio of female poets to male poets, the individual in question will not purchase / borrow the book.

This individual, let me suggest, is not remotely interested in literature; rather, this individual is interested in issues of sociological interest related to literature and publishing. If the individual in question was truly interested in literature, they would judge the contents of the book on its own merit, reading the work irrespective of whether it has been composed by a man or a woman; a heterosexual or a homosexual; a white person or a black person; a believer or a dissenter.

Whatever you say, say nothing

Several months ago, I posted a response on my Facebook account to Canadian writer and academic David Gilmour’s polarizing comments regarding the reading list for his university course, specifically his comments in a print interview that he wasn’t interested in teaching women writers on his course. To quote Gilmour, “I don’t love women writers enough to teach them. What I teach is guys. Serious, heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real- guy guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.”

I responded to Gilmour’s remarks by stating that while I didn’t agree in the slightest with the nature of his comments, Gilmour’s stance was, ethically, no different to the position that a magazine such as Mslexia has taken on gender in literature and in publishing.

For those who don’t know, Mslexia is a creative magazine “for women who write”; a magazine that only accepts submissions from women. If you are a male author and you submit a work of poetry or fiction to Mslexia, it will not be published by Mslexia. As Mslexia states on its submissions page, “Mslexia welcomes previously unpublished submissions from women for every part of the magazine.”

Now picture this: imagine that yours truly were to set up a creative writing magazine, though not just any creative writing magazine, mind…no, no: a creative writing magazine exclusively by men and exclusively for men; a magazine that only accepts submissions of poetry and fiction by men and does not publish any submissions by women. A magazine that, to paraphrase David Gilmour, doesn’t love women writers enough to publish them. A magazine that publishes guys.

If I were to have the audacity to set up such a magazine, I would be slammed by women, left, right and centre. In fact, I would probably be subjected to the same vitriol which David Gilmour found himself at the wrong end of, and rightly so. Perhaps more severely, I would be labelled a misogynist; a chauvinist; a sexist. If you cannot see the hypocrisy of Mslexia‘s position and those who support their position, then I suggest you make an appointment with your local optician.

Somewhat predictably, after posting the above point on Facebook, I was set upon by what can only be described as a mob, who rather than seeing my side of the argument and arguing their case persuasively against mine, decided to clan together and shout me down in an attempt to close down the discussion. In fact, I had to temporarily deactivate my Facebook account as I had received abusive private messages- the content of which is unrepeatable- and, later, I received death threats through the letterbox of my home and on the windshield of my car, none of which were left by those people who contributed to the initial discussion, but were left by someone I didn’t know who got wind of my comments through a mutual contact on Facebook.

#ReadWomen2014

All of which brings me neatly to #ReadWomen2014. The campaign is, apparently, aimed at encouraging readers to discover women writers who may have been forgotten or overlooked.

While it is undoubtedly true that there are female authors who have been forgotten about and who remain unread, it is also true that there are male authors who have also been forgotten and unread.

The campaign, ultimately, begs the following questions: why does the campaign assume that it is only female authors who have been neglected; that there are no male authors, dead or alive, who have been unjustly overlooked or forgotten by readers, writers and critics? Can the campaign be described as gender neutral and gender balanced?

Now, before you argue that the campaign is aimed at correcting a perceived gender imbalance in literature and in publishing, ask yourself the following: why is such a campaign being driven at a time when

a), women are, undoubtedly, reading more books, more magazines and more newspapers than men;
b), more books are being written and published by women, which is confirmed by even a cursory glance at the most recent bestsellers list;
c), in 2013, three appointments were made for much- sought after positions in Irish poetry: Sinead Morrissey was made Belfast’s first- ever poet laureate; Maureen Kennelly was appointed Director of Poetry Ireland; Dublin poet Paula Meehan was named Ireland Professor of Poetry: all women;
d), the single most powerful books critic in the English speaking world within the last 20 years; the media figure who has influenced sales of fiction more than any other personality who features books as part of their broadcasts has been Oprah Winfrey: a woman;
e), the world’s top- earning author of 2013 was E.L. James, author of the 100million+ copies- selling Fifty Shades of Grey, who earned $95million in 2013 alone: a woman;
f), the most recent winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, the most prestigious poetry prize in Ireland and Britain, was awarded to Sinead Morrissey (for her astonishing collection of poems, Parallax) : a woman;
g), the recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature was Alice Munro: a woman;
h), the two most recent winners of The Booker Prize for Fiction- the most prestigious prize for works of fiction on this side of the Atlantic- were Hilary Mantel (2012) and Eleanor Catton (2013): both women.

I am not saying that there is anything inherently wrong with any of the above facts: if anything, I think that all of the above facts constitute tremendous progress  given that there was a shameful time in our history when women were forbidden from being educated, let alone being given the opportunity to write and publish books.

The point that I am making is this: if you are a female reader, writer or critic, how could you possibly feel slighted or feel as if you are a victim of bias when you consider any and all of the above facts?

Don’t shoot the editor

Writing in last weekend’s Irish Times, Sinead Gleeson made the point that “One of the most problematic offenders for gender balance was the London Review of Books“, making the point that according to the Vida Count, 82% of the LRB‘s articles were authored by men.

One can assume, then, that Mary- Kay Wilmers- the LRB‘s long- time editor and, yes, a woman- judges the work that she publishes in the LRB by the quality of the work that is submitted to the LRB and the quality of the pitches that she receives from freelance contributors and not by the gender of the authors.

Similarly, I remember a story told to me by Joseph Woods, the former director of Poetry Ireland; a story which illustrated the integrity of one of Poetry Ireland Review‘s rotating editors. The story related to noted poet, editor and academic Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, who edited issues 92 – 95 of PIR, some years ago. According to Woods, Professor Ní Chuilleanáin, early in her run as editor of PIR, began to receive letters by, presumably, female readers of Poetry Ireland Review, questioning why Ní Chuilleanáin was not publishing more women poets under her editorship.

Allegedly, Ní Chuilleanáin is said to have responded to each letter by stating that it was an editor’s job to pick the best possible work submitted to the editor and the work that best hangs together in the magazine for that particular issue; it was not the job of an editor to choose work based on the gender of the author.

Both of these stories, if true, reveal the following, undeniable truths: the only responsibility that any editor of a literary magazine or journal has- be they male or female- is to select the highest quality work for the benefit of readers of and subscribers to the magazine or journal in question, irrespective of whether that work is written by a man or a woman: judging the work irrespective of the author’s gender- or any other part of the author’s identity that they cannot change-  amounts to balance, equality and fairness, which is something that we could all learn as readers.

New features: The Saturday Song, The Sunday Poem

Posted in Books, Features, Features, Features, Music, Poetry by Philip Cummins on February 7, 2014

As of this weekend, I’ll be running two regular, weekly features on music and literature: The Saturday Song and The Sunday Poem

Keep an eye out for two weekly music and literature features that I’ll be running, as of this weekend: The Saturday Song and The Sunday Poem

SO I’m going to start uploading some new, regular features to run along my published work.

Every weekend, I’ll post up The Saturday Song and The Sunday Poem on their respective days. These features will consist of a detailed, critical analysis of a song and poem, applying music theory and literary theory / poetic terminology to the song / poem in question, though done so- I hope- in a way that is entertaining, at the very least.

Every song that I feature will have either a Soundcloud or Spotify link embedded in the feature. For copyright reasons, it won’t be possible to post an entire poem on the site, though I will encourage readers to dig out the poem in their libraries and, indeed, from their own bookshelves. Certainly, I will list the collections and anthologies in which the chosen poem is published.

Another feature that I am toying with is The Friday Film, which would be written in the same tone as The Saturday Songs and The Sunday Poem. The Friday Film, however, is a longer term idea that I may develop, depending on the success of the The Saturday Song and The Sunday Poem. 

This week’s Saturday Song will be Vampire Weekend’s Obvious Bicycle.

This week’s Sunday Poem will be Simon Armitage’s The Shout. 

If there are songs and / or poems that you would like to see covered, please comment below with your suggestions.

News: Carcanet poets Caoilinn Hughes & Tara Bergin to launch début poetry collections at the Irish Writers Centre onThursday 6th February

Posted in Books, News, News, Poetry, Publishing by Philip Cummins on January 4, 2014

Caoilinn Hughes will launch Gathering Evidence, her début collections of poems, published by Carcanet Press, on Thursday 6th February.

LAUNCHING their début collections back on home turf, New Zealand- based poet Caoilinn Hughes and North Yorkshire- based poet Tara Bergin will read in the Irish Writers Centre on Thursday 6th February at 6:30pm.

Caoilinn Hughes- who yours truly interviewed as part of last year’s Poetry Ireland Introductions series- will read from Gathering Evidence, which netted her the 2012 Patrick Kavanagh Award. According to her publisher, Gathering Evidence “traces the parallels between scientific exploration and poetic venturing: ‘Gathering the data and deciphering / inference is how I stay alive’.”

Dublin native Tara Bergin will read from This Is Yarrow, which poet and critic John McAuliffe described as “…primarily a book of monologues, establishing voices whose skewed attitudes invite an engaged critical response from the reader. The monologues are sometimes reminiscent of Paul Durcan and at other times Sylvia Plath and they can be very cutting and funny at the expense of their speakers.”

Caoilinn Hughes was born in Galway, Ireland. With BA and MA degrees from the Queen’s University of Belfast, she moved to New Zealand and enrolled in a Ph.D. at Victoria University of Wellington. A selection of poems from her first book, Gathering Evidence (Carcanet) won the 2012 Patrick Kavanagh Award, the 2013 Cúirt New Writing Prize, the 2012 STA Travel Writing Prize and the 2013 Trócaire / Poetry Ireland Competition.

Tara Bergin was born and grew up in Dublin. She moved to England in 2002. In 2012 she completed her PhD research at Newcastle University on Ted Hughes’s translations of János Pilinszky. Her poems have appeared in New Poetries V and her début collection This is Yarrow was published by Carcanet Press.

Books 2014: New poetry titles to look out for in the new year

Posted in Books, News, Publishing by Philip Cummins on December 30, 2013

The new year in poetry promises exciting débuts from fresh talents as well as old hands turning in new directions

Vona Groarke’s X will be published by The Gallery Press in February.

THE GALLERY PRESS will publish a rich varied selection of new collections throughout 2014. Manchester- based Longford native Vona Groarke‘s eagerly awaited sixth collection of poems, entitled X, is already generating considerable excitement, not least among the Poetry Book Society, who have made X their Poetry Book Society recommendation for Spring 2014. X is described as “a book of honesty and poise: its lustrous detail and exacting truths make this a groundbreaking publication from a poet hailed in Poetry Ireland Review as ‘among the best Irish poets writing today’.”

Other titles from the Meath publisher include From Elsewhere (March), a new collection of poems from Ciaran Carson, the ever- prolific Belfast poet who doesn’t seem to sleep; the late Pearse Hutchinson‘s poems will be appear in the spring; Gallery Press founder and publisher Peter Fallon will publish Strong, My Love in April, which will be his first collection since 2007′s The Company of Horses

Also returning with new work is Limerick poet Sean Lysaght, whose sixth collection is tentatively titled Carnival Masks. The inspiration for the working title came from a poem in which Lysaght describes a journey back to his home in Co. Mayo, after several months spent in Italy, and tidying away a pair of masks that the poet and his wife bought at the Carnevale di Viareggio, held every February in the Tuscan city of Viareggio, Italy.

According to Lysaght, the collection has “…a calendar structure: many poems with references to the natural world can be connected to a particular time of year. The first poem is called ‘Skylarks in January’, then there’s a February piece, a March piece, and so on. The calendar pattern is not absolutely strict, and there are other poems in the book as well, but it allowed me a way of organising an array of material, and of connecting poems about Mayo with poems set in Italy, where my wife and I spent a winter about four years ago.”

Doire Press

DOIRE PRESS are likely to be still celebrating, following Adam White’s appearance on the shortlist for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, this year. However, the Connemara- based publisher will publish the début collection of poems from Dimitra Xidousthe Dublin- based Greek- Canadian poet and co- founder / co- editor of The Pickled Body. Entitled Keeping Bees, Xidous’ first collection will no doubt feature poems that have featured in the Bridport and Over the Edge Emerging Writer prizes,  as well as work that is due to appear in The New Planet Cabaret and the Spring 2014 edition of The Stinging Fly, in which she will be a featured poet.

BLOODAXE have two Irish poets on their list for 2014: Harry Clifton‘s The Holding Centre: Selected Poems 1974-2004 will appear in February.

Louis de Paor’s The Brindled Cat and the Nightingale’s Tongue will appear in a bi- lingual edition from Bloodaxe

Interestingly, a bi- lingual selection of Louis de Paor’s poems will feature in The Brindled Cat and the Nightingale’s Tongue, a book which de Paor worked on with a trio translators, consisting of  Kevin Anderson, Biddy Jenkinson and Mary O’Donoghue. According to Bloodaxe, “the translations have eschewed the modern fashion for so-called “versions”, producing English translations which are as close as possible to the original Irish poems without sacrificing their tone, energy, clarity and lightness of touch.”

FABER‘s list of new poetry books for 2014 includes a typical mix of commissioned translations, an opportunity to revise the poetry of authors with considerable work under their belt, as well as new work from emerging talents.

Too often dismissed as too didactic and a political poet in an age of political apathy, Tom Paulin‘s New Selected Poems (May) comes at a time when there is a severe lack of well- written, well- executed political poetry. One only has to read Paulin’s current Selected Poems, 1972 – 1990 to find a poet whose gift for wrapping the demotic tones of his native Ulster around technically skilled, enviably crafted poems. Paulin’s New Selected Poems is a welcome opportunity to revise four decades worth of work, including poems from Walking a Line (1994), The Wind Dog (1999) and last year’s Love’s Bonfire.

American poet August Kleinzahler

Once described by Allen Ginsberg as “A loner, a genius.”, New Jersey- born, San Francisco- based poet August Kleinzahler is undoubtedly one of foremost American poets currently writing. The wider availability of Kleinzahler’s collections on this side of the Atlantic, including 1995′s Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow, 2000′s Green Sees Things in Waves, 2004′s excellent The Strange Hours That Travellers Keep and 2008′s Sleeping it Off in Rapid City: New and Selected Poems, have seen the oft described “pugilist” poet’s stock rise considerably.

Kleinzahler’s latest collection, Hotel Oneira, will no doubt feature the collision course of registers, the unpredictable cadences and the savvy, street poetry that have characterised Kleinzahler’s best work. Writing in the Irish Times, John McAuliffe has described Hotel Oneira as a collection “…with spiky portraits (and self-portraits) alongside the American landscapes that have become his speciality, moving easily and mysteriously between domestic close-ups of the weather and noodling riffs on the state of the modern world.”

At a reading that Kleinzahler was giving and which I attended, a compere- who claimed to be an expert in Kleinzahler’s work and spent more than ten minutes introducing and explaining Kleinzahler’s work to us mere mortals in the audience- made the unfortunate mistake of continually referring to August Kleinzahler as “Awgoooost” Kleinzahler, rather than pronouncing Kleinzahler’s forename as one would pronounce the month of the same name. Perhaps- perhaps- Kleinzahler’s new collection will be appreciated to the point where even experts in his oeuvre can pronounce his name.

While we may have to wait a while for a new collection from Simon Armitage, the Yorkshire poet’s translation of The Last Days of Troy (May), commissioned by the Royal Exchange for performance in April 2014. A retelling of The Iliad, there’s no doubt that Armitage will freshen up the classical text as he has done with his engaging translations of The Odyssey, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight and The Death of King Arthur.

Lavinia Greenlaw’s A Double Sorrow: Troilus and Criseyde

On the note of translations, versions, imitations and all that, Lavinia Greenlaw‘s A Double Sorrow (February), which takes its title from the opening line of Chaucher’s Troilus and Criseyde- of which A Double Sorrow is a retelling- and which is neither translation nor version; rather, Greenlaw’s retelling takes the form of seven- line vignettes.

Twelve years on from his Collected PoemsHugo Williams returns in April with I Knew the Bride, his first collection of poems since 2006′s excellent West End Final, which, no doubt, will explore his parents’ theatrical vocations and his portraits of London in the 50′s, all shot through with the ironic bite and sardonic humour that we’ve come to expect from Williams.

Due in February, Tony Martinez de las Rivas‘ début collection, Terror (February), promises poems that are “…political, social, theological, historical and personal, the poems in this debut collection work closely with the reader, asking questions of us and encouraging us never to settle for inadequate answers.” Rivas was previously featured in Faber’s New Poets series.

Dedalus Press’ If You Ever Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song

THE BIG WIN for poetry in 2014, however, is undoubtedly Dedalus Press‘ If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song (February), which has been chosen as the One City: One Book title for 2014. Supported by Dublin City Council and led by Dublin City Public libraries,  the award- winning initiative has been a resounding success.

First published in 1969, James Plunkett’s Strumpet City was given a new lease of life, this year. The very fact that Plunkett’s masterpiece topped the Irish bestsellers list, thereby introducing a whole new generation to Plunkett’s great novel, was testament not only to the power of fresh ideas within Dublin City Council (yes, they do exist), but also the willingness to support Irish books of which we as readers have, perhaps, under- appreciated the significance.

Edited by Dedalus Press publisher Pat Boran and Gerard Smyth, the Irish Times’ Poetry Editor, If Ever You Go takes its title from Patrick Kavanagh’s poem ‘If You Ever Go to Dublin Town’ (If ever you go to Dublin town / In a hundred years or so / Inquire for me in Baggot Street 
/ And what I was like to know).

According to Dublin City Libraries, If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song “…includes writing by both historical and contemporary figures, among them Swift, Synge, Yeats, Joyce, Kavanagh and Ó Direáin as well as Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Dermot Bolger, Paula Meehan, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Derek Mahon. There are songs and ballads from the city’s colonial past, verses by leaders of the 1916 Rising, and portraits of the modern city with its Spire and Luas tram, its Celtic Tiger ‘prosperity’ and its post-Celtic Tiger challenges.”

In a country which looks as if it is about to overdose on a lethal concoction short stories and flash fiction, it is finally good to see Irish poetry featured on the same platform as prose.

Forgotten anyone? Please use the contact form below and let me know. Otherwise, you can contact me here. 

Poetry review: Chance by John Saunders

Posted in Books, Poetry, Reviews by Philip Cummins on December 13, 2013

Chance by John Saunders


Chance by John Saunders

New Binary Press, 80pp, €8. ISBN 978-0-9574661-7-3

John Saunders has secrets to tell. The Offaly poet’s second collection, Chance, follows 2010’s After the Accident (Lapwing) and it confirms Saunders’ abilities to zoom- in on seemingly innocuous occurrences from memory and from the present day, probing their significance with lyric intensity. It is Saunders’ balancing of strong, formal control with slow- burning, poignant, public utterance to craft poems that recall the chief influences that shine through in these poems; namely Paul Durcan, Billy Colllins and Philip Larkin.

The title poem of Chance, a beautifully achieved Shakespearean sonnet, flows effortlessly- and somewhat ironically- against the central theme of the poem: repression. The poem reaches beyond “that small scullery” that Saunders describes, probing what progress is and what progress isn’t (“…an afterthought to the old run down house, now rubble, / where we sat each evening without doubt”) and explores temporary satisfaction and reluctant acceptance with a formal symmetry befitting of the sonnet form, playing “…the ever present rain / that slapped the window panes” against “our dinners / that when eaten, made us flush / with warmth”.

Saunders’ observational poems may well begin in “that small scullery” and, like the spider depicted on the front cover of Chance, Saunders weaves webs from the scullery to other places of significance for the poet. Remarkably, hotels recur, again and again, which may be linked to Saunders’ role as Director of Shine: the national organisation for supporting those individuals affected by ill mental health. The poet’s take on hotels, however, is multi- dimensional: in ‘Monday Night, Lawlor’s Hotel’, an unflinching eye is set on a regional hotel (“snuffle of beer stained carpet, the meat and two veg / of provincial life overlaid / by Latte and Lavage”). For Saunders, a hotel is an arena for social commentary.

Conversely, ‘In The Victoria Hotel’ is a poem that celebrates intimacy. The classy and elegant ‘Victoria Hotel’ is in sharp contrast to the provincial, “meat and two veg” of ‘Lawlor’s Hotel’. In ‘…Victoria…’, however, physical intimacy fights against moral harmony; the two lovers “…make love in the company of guilt, / shelter weakness in our hearts, / give safety to dangerous thoughts”. Like ‘Chance’, Saunders creates tension between two things that should, in theory, be in harmony, though it is what is not being said- what is not being expressed by the characters that populate his poems- that creates a lyric intensity that rewards upon repeated readings.

Though Saunders focuses his poetic observations indiscriminately, he does, however, fall prey to jaded clichés that he fails to sidestep (consider “our past, present and future / haunted by the shadow of waste, / the deep scar of regret” from ‘Monday Night, Lawlor’s Hotel’). Similarly, in ‘I Listen to Joni Mitchell on My iPod at a Science Lecture’, “mind- blowing” describes the cosmos.

The hard- won and beautifully crafted intimacy of Saunders’ best poems in Chance are compromised by the length of the book (at 68 poems, it is, perhaps, thirty poems longer than it ought to be) and by po- biz name- dropping (there are dedications to Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Eleanor Hooker and an acknowledgement to Paul Durcan) that creates a distance between the poet and the reader that sacrifices the raw honesty and moral fortitude that Saunders’ poems achieve.

All of which, of course, is not enough to take away from some marvellous poems. The success of the book’s final poem, ‘Score’, is that it feels as if the entire collection is leading up to what can only be described as the raw, poetic utterance promised from early- on in the collection; the poems that precede ‘Score’ are all holding back the deeper truth that are revealed in ‘Score’, a poem full of the intimate observations that characterise Saunders’ best work.

Five Remarkable Poetry Collections from 2013

Posted in Books, Features, Irish Post, Poetry, Reviews by Philip Cummins on December 12, 2013

Originally published in Rí- Rá in The Irish Post, Thursday December 12th, 2013

Loath as I am to pick just five books, here are some collections of original poems from poets writing in the English language that made my 2013

The Water Stealer by Maurice Riordan (Faber)

The Water Stealer by Maurice Riordan

A long- time resident of south- London and a native of Lisgoold, Co. Cork, Riordan, like James Joyce, never fully left Ireland. In ‘The Cross’, one of the collection’s more remarkable poems, Riordan conjures the image of a hurling match being “broadcast live from Thurles or Birr” from a toy model car in a model village. It is Riordan’s seemingly effortless ability to blend the traditional with the modern that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Similarly, Riordan’s elegy to Michael Donaghy, the late Irish- American poet, is one of the more memorable elegies composed in memory of the much- memorialised and much- missed poet.

Pluto by Glyn Maxwell (Picador)

Pluto by Glyn Maxwell

Narrowly missing out on this year’s Forward Prize for Best Collection, Glyn Maxwell’s Pluto confirm’s Maxwell as one of the most original and under- appreciated poets of the current era. Brimming with language of the day and subtle rhetorical flourishes, the rhythm of opening poem ‘The Bye Laws’ is rooted in song, making it feel like an overture for the poems of consistent technical skill and formal versatility to follow. In ‘The Case of After’, the centre- piece of Pluto, Orpheus reaches into the underworld by logging on to a dating site: “She wore dark glasses in the only photo / I could access yet. I was peering at that window / like peter sodding Quint I had the blue glow.”


Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts (Cape Poetry)

Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts

Described as a “religious poet for a secular age”, poet Michael Symmons Roberts followed good on the peaks of previous collections Corpus and The Half Healed with Drysalter, his sixth collection of poems, which won this year’s Forward Prize for Best Collection. A novelist and a librettist as well as a poet, Drysalter finds Symmons Roberts working on a smaller canvas than he is used to; all 150 poems were composed to the formal constraint of 15 lines. Symmons Roberts’ great skill is in reinvigorating the familiar with striking images. Take ‘Hitchcockian’: ‘The birds are taking over. Not in rows on high wires / chittering on rooves at passers- by, fixing a lone child / with their red- ringed, sink hole eyes…”.

The Mining Road by Leanne O’Sullivan (Bloodaxe)

The Mining Road by Leanne O’Sullivan

Cork poet Leeane O’Sullivan aligns herself as closely to the Irish lyric tradition as is possible with The Mining Road. The strong influence of the late Seamus Heaney weighs heavily in O’Sullivan’s fourth collection of poems, but O’Sullivan has the confidence and experience not to allow the great man’s influence overpower her work. The theme of discovery recurs again and again in The Mining Road. In The Boundary Journey, a two-part poem- the first mentioning the Atlantic ocean, the second alluding to the Irish Sea- finds O’Sullivan wedged between two different places, two different zones (‘Not to the boundary waters / that part our two counties’). In these subtle, slow- burning and sensuous poems that reward with successive readings, The Mining Road is a step in the right direction for O’Sullivan and, indeed, for Irish poetry.

Consent by Kimberly Campanello (Doire Press)

Consent by Kimberly Campanello

Dividing her time between both Dublin and London, American poet Kimberly Campanello’s first collection of poems from Galway publisher Doire Press is one of poetry’s most auspicious débuts in recent years. Formally exciting and full of surprises, Campanello is a poet who knows that darkness is a necessity in order to appreciate lightness; her poems veer from humorous observations (opening poem ‘Consent’ contains the nugget “My bowels are bound / by cheese and fear”) as well as poems that pack a powerful emotional punch; in ‘Grandma’, Campanello uses the conversational register so prevalent in her work to devastating effect, when describing a woman’s deterioration due to Alzheimer’s disease: “You burn the bottom / of four coffee pots. / You serve your grandchildren / raw sausages on Sunday / When you’re hungry / you eat ice cream.” A stunning début from an exciting talent.

Poetry: ‘Emergency’, a new poem by Simon Armitage

Posted in Books, Features, News, Poetry by Philip Cummins on December 10, 2013

Recently published in the New Statesman, Simon Armitage’s latest poem, ‘Emergency’, is a welcome reminder of the Yorkshire poet’s ability to both observe and reflect the despondency and the socio- economic decay prevalent in modern society, through the chilling, marginalised characters who populate his early poems

Simon Armitage

IN AN INTERVIEW with the Guardian during the aftermath of the 2011 England Riots, Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage reflected on a comparison between the violence and social discord of Thatcher’s England in the 1980′s and the discontent and despondency felt by those individuals deeply affected by the current global economic recession.

Eventually, after some discussion, Guardian journalist John Harris asked Armitage if elements of the current socio- economic climate would find their way into new poems by the now fifty- year- old poet. After a pregnant pause, Armitage claimed “I would think so.”

Since that interview, Armitage has published a translation of the Arthurian epic The Death of King Arthur (2012), which, like his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2006), effectively acts as an arena in which Armitage subverts the Middle English verse with the fresh, vital, vibrant language often found in his original poems.

Reading ‘Emergency’, however, a new poem published in the New Statesman, it does feel like Armitage has kept good on his claim that he would reflect the despondency of the current climate. The very tone of ‘Emergency’ aligns the poem to those poems that Armitage wrote in the late 80′s / early 90′s; poems like ‘Snow Joke’, ‘Poem’, ‘November’ and ‘The Stuff’ from 1989′s Zoom; poems such as ‘Gooseberry Season’, ‘True North’, ‘Brassneck’ and ‘About His Person’ from 1992′s Kid. The same fire that burned within the young poet, then, is still burning within the poet, it seems, now.

What is so impressive about Armitage’s latest poem is how, like ‘The Stuff’ and ‘Gooseberry Season’, ‘Emergency’ flows so naturally and so effortlessly while detailing the seemingly ordinary and mundane to chilling effect. There is an almost apocalyptic quality to ‘Emergency’ (The horizon ablaze – / is it moore-fire or sundown?), which starts, ultimately, with the defeated owner of The four- pump petrol garage / finally closed, attempting to commit suicide by coupling the lips of his car exhaust / to the roots of his lungs.

The true success ‘Emergency’ is in Armitage’s brilliant use of adjectives. Adjectives, by their very nature, describe, or modify, nouns; in ‘Emergency’, Armitage, then, is describing not just what society is, but what society has allowed itself to become: the owner of the garage is defeated; the quarry is disused; the emergency vehicles are decommissioned; the kitchenette is functional. The way that Armitage uses adjectives in ‘Emergency’ suggests that compromises and concessions have not been made, but, rather, they have been imposed.

The final stanza ends the poem with the kind of grim, rhetorical punch that has been missing from poems by Armitage in recent years. Like parts of ‘The Stuff’ and ‘Brassneck’, the final stanza details a deal taking place:

In the local taproom
prescription jellies and tin- foil wraps
change hands under cover
of Loot magazine
and Tetley beer mats.
What is it we do now?

Like all great poets, Armitage never assumes high moral ground, nor does he rush to the easiest moral judgement; rather, he leaves the reader with probing questions: why is the defeated owner defeated? Why, we ask, has he reached the point where he is coupling the lips of his car exhaust / to the roots of his lungs / via the garden hose ? Why is it that

The bank’s gone as well
and also the post office,
though in the sore- cum- off licence
you can sign a gyro
with a string-and-sellotape- tethered
half- chewed biro

Armitage’s forthcoming publication, a translation of Homer’s The Iliad, is due to be staged at The Globe in June 2014 and the text will be published by Faber during 2014. It is likely that ‘Emergency’ will be collected in a new collection due in 2015 or, perhaps, a New Selected Poems, what with Armitage’s previous Selected Poems being published in 2001. Wherever and whenever it appears, ‘Emergency’, for now, is a welcome reminder of Armitage’s gift for crafting raw, stark, original poems that reflect the society of the age to chilling effect.

John Ennis’s ‘Postponing Ásbyrgi’: Westmeath poet writes collection of poems inspired by Sigur Rós

Posted in Books, News, Poetry by Philip Cummins on December 7, 2013
John Ennis

John Ennis’s Postponing Ásbyrgi, a collection of poems inspired by the music of Sigur Rós, is published by Three Spires Press

NOW AND AGAIN, I receive books from authors and publishers that take me by surprise. It is, in particular, the very nature of the book that takes me by surprise: the thematic arc, the context of the story, the historical ground that the book covers, the references and allusions.

So it was when I received Postponing Ásbyrgi, the latest collection of poems by Westmeath- born, Waterford- based poet John Ennis. Famously described by the late Seamus Heaney as “Ireland’s most undeservedly neglected poet”, Ennis is a previous winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award, a past editor of Poetry Ireland Review and an author of thirteen books of poetry, published by The Gallery Press and Dedalus Press.

Published by Three Spires Press, Postponing Ásbyrgi is a collection of poems inspired by the music of Sigur Rós. According to the back cover of Ennis’s book, “The poems in John Ennis’s latest collection are intended as conduit back to the music of Sigor Rós and those who perform with them. The poems arise from and refer back to the music. They are taken from an ongoing sequence.”

As a Sigur Rós Fan and as someone who saw the Icelandic band play their first- ever Irish show in April 2001 at Temple Theatre in Dublin at the insistence of Julie from Road Records- who introduced me to Sigur Rós via Sigur Rós’ extraordinary Ágætis byrjun record- I am interested in Ennis’s reaction to the music of the Iceland band.

When the economic downturn hit Ireland full- force, the cliché trotted out by celebrity economists and media pundits, at the time, was that “the only difference between Iceland and Ireland is a letter”. That aside, I’ve always felt that there is a strong connection between Iceland and Ireland: we’re both small islands in the north Atlantic; we both boast beautiful, open scenery and our music has a sound that reflects the landscape around us. I’ve always felt the echos of Sean-nós in Sigur Rós.

I haven’t yet started reading Ennis’s intriguing book of poems, though I look forward to reading it. A review should appear in the new year.

Click here to listen to RTÉ Radio One’s Doc On One documentary on John Ennis. This recording was broadcast in 1981 and produced by Breandan O’Ciobhain

Interview: Micheal O’Siadhail, poet

Posted in Books, Features, Irish Post, Poetry by Philip Cummins on December 6, 2013

Originally published in Rí- Rá by The Irish Post, Saturday December 7th, 2013

Best Known for poems that evoke a certain despondency, Micheal O’Siadhail has been celebrated this year by the publication of his Collected Poems

Dublin poet Micheal O’Siadhail

STRIDING across the lobby of the Dublin 4 hotel in which we meet, 66 year- old poet Micheal O’Siadhail doesn’t look like a man with a large amount of weight on his shoulders. Standing at over six feet tall, boasting an athletic frame, a youthful, bouffant hairstyle and an impressive visage, the Clongowes educated “Jesuit boy” is a striking figure, which might explain the appearance of painter Mick O’Dea’s portrait of the poet, featured on the front cover of Ó’Siadhail’s Collected Poems, recently published by Bloodaxe Books.

As we exchange pleasantries, O’Siadhail is notably downcast and ashen- faced. I ask him how is feeling, today. “As good as can be expected”, he replies.

The poet has every reason to struggle with the business of publicising his latest publication. In June of this year, Bríd O’Siadhail (née Ní Chearbhaill), wife and muse of the poet for over 43 years, died of a heart attack while in care. A former teacher and suffer since 1997 of Parkinson’s disease, the poet is noticeably shaken and upset at the very mention of her passing.

“It was the most extraordinary moment in my life when I was writing the dedication of the book to my late wife, Bríd. My intention was always to write “To Bríd, with love” and I found myself writing “In Memoriam: Bríd”. I see the publication of the Collected Poems, though, as a huge privilege. I’m proud of the work between the covers, Mick O’Dea’s portrait and the cd provided by Bloodaxe, which is wonderful. Though she saw the proofs, I wish Bríd could have seen the finished book. We had a wonderful rhythm in our life, together. My overall feeling, though, is that I feel incredibly privileged to have been with her for 44 years, because not everyone can say that, unfortunately, and I fell deeper and deeper in love with her, over time. The support that I have received over the months at the recent readings and speeches have been heartening and supporting. “

Micheal O'Siadhail's Collected Poems comprises of more than 40 years of poems.

Micheal O’Siadhail’s Collected Poems comprises of more than 40 years of poems.

At over 800 pages, O’Siadhail’s Collected Poems comprises of a life’s work- 40 years, in fact- of poetry. What impresses O’Siadhail most about the publication by Bloodaxe, however, is the audio c.d. “There’s an accompanying c.d. with the book, which I’m delighted about. I often ask myself how poems by my favorite poets would sound and feel if I have audio tracks of them reading: imagine hearing Shakespeare reading his Sonnets?! Claddagh Records have, over the years, done a great job of recording poets such as Patrick Kavanagh, Michael Hartnett, Derek Mahon and, many, many others, reading their own work. I think that it is important to have a record of how the poet sounded when he / she read their poems. That said, a composer isn’t always the best conductor of his / her own music: inevitably, readers will put their own spin on these poems when they read them out loud and they will stress and inflect where their voice leads them.”

It was the most extraordinary moment in my life when I was writing the dedication of the book to my late wife, Bríd. My intention was always to write “To Bríd, with love” and I found myself writing “In Memoriam: Bríd”

Culturally, what was energising those first poems in 1978′s The Leap Year? “Well, when I was writing in the 70’s it was quite a time to be writing. We had already been through the highs and the elation of the 60’s and those who came to adulthood in the 60’s had to face up to a different set of circumstances in the 70’s: it wasn’t the party that the 60’s was. So I was trying to make sense of my at that time, I think, which is what I’ve done with my poems: trying to find rich and deep meaning in life and question what that is: in friendships, in love. I have, however, also written about the Holocaust, which I think encapsulates the evil aspects of life, which I have also written about.”

“I don’t think that those early books are full of despair, but I think they reflect, certainly, a lot despair that was in the air. At the that time, Beckett was still one of the most major writers in the world and his plays full of despair, as is Pinter’s work and that of the theatre of the absurd. My work, I think, says that despite all that, I have seen ordinary people live lives of normality, of joy, of richness.”

In an early poem, ‘Line’, there seems to come a point of self- realisation, much like Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’; that the poet has chosen the vocation, or the vocation has chosen the poet. “You’re absolutely right. There came, with that poem, a sense of confidence. ‘Line’ was the moment when I realised that I was on this path of poetry and- I think I write in the preface in the Collected Poems- a way of reassuring both myself and my reader that this was all worthwhile; that for better of for worse, this is the commitment; this is where I stand. Up until ‘Line’, those early poems from the first two books were probing towards the vocation until there comes a certain point that you realise this what you are; this is what you do.”

As with O’Siadhail’s thematically- focused poems since the 1980’s, there is an index to the poems. “I think the index is another great addition to the book. It’s a surprise to me, to be honest; when I now read from the book I am able to see how many poems that I wrote about jazz, which occurs so often across the book, to my surprise. Even for me it’s fascinating. I wasn’t surprised by some of the themes that I have written about, but I have been surprised by how pervasive they seem to be in my work. Seasons crop up a lot and primal imagery is recurring, which is also interesting.”

I come from a completely different background to Patrick Kavanagh, but his sincerity and his vulnerability are things that I recognise

It was move to Oslo as a student that had a profound effect on the poet. “Oslo changed my poetry significantly, there’s no question about that. I was interested in Icelandic poetry, Swedish poetry, Nordic poetry and there is a quality in those works that appealed tremendously to my temperament: it’s the clarity and the primal imagery, which I would think is a result of the extreme climates in which they live. I’m sure it had an effect of me. I don’t think I was imitating anyone; I think all of those things were already inside me and my experiences opened up a lot of those things.”

In the late 1980’s, O’Siadhail left his Professorship in Trinity College Dublin to write full- time, going against the late Dennis O’Driscoll’s dictum that “All play and no work makes jack a dull poet”.

“I never regretted going full- time: it suited my temperament, it suited the way that I worked. I knew Dennis well and that was his choice, as it was T.S. Eliot’s who was a banker, Wallace Stevens who was an insurance man. There are lots of examples. For me, personally, it just suited my temperament. It also gave me the opportunity to explore themes and since I went full- time in the 80’s, my books took on a thematic structure. I knew John McGahern well and John- who also wrote full- time- would say that “it’s not only the hours that you’re working that count; it’s your mind when you’re not working that count as well.” You never clock- off. Perhaps if you are doing something that is automatic or routine- such as research- it takes up a lot of energy, which saps the creative energy. I loved writing poetry over academia and I’ve never regretted going full- time. My poems got deeper and richer.”

The influence that does come through, again and again in O’Siadhail’s  poems is that of Patrick Kavanagh. “An extraordinary poet. On his day, he was as good as anyone. It seems to me extraordinary that he came from a pre- industrial society in Ireland and he reflected that society. He had a medieval humour that underpins his work and he also has a vulnerability, which I think readers like to see in their poets. I come from a completely different background to Kavanagh, but his sincerity and his vulnerability and things that I recognise.”

So with the publication of Collected Poems, 800 pages comprising of over 40 years of poetry, is this the end of the line for the prolific poet? “I hope there’s more to come, but as of now I’m deeply, deeply proud of the Collected Poems.”

Micheal O’Siadhail’s Collected Poems is available, now, from Bloodaxe

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,388 other followers

%d bloggers like this: