Basil Payne

1928-2012; b. 23 June, Dublin; his mother was nationalist and his father pro-British; ed. CBS Synge St. and UCD (Arts, hons.); worked as a health insurance administator at snr. management level with VHI, up to 1971 when retired early to become full-time writer; winner of Guinness International Poetry Prize, 1964; lectured in English at Rutgers Univ., and Univ. of California; Governor’s Special Citation for unique contribution to the Arts at Glassboro State Coll., NJ (USA), 1975; m. Monessa (née Keating), with children, Lucy, Cyprian, Norbert, Gregory, Bernard, Michael and Christopher;

poetry coll. incl. Sunlight on a Square (1961); Love in the Afternoon (1971); Another Kind of Optimism (1974); Voyage à Deux (1974); Why are There So Many Blind People in Philadelphia (1979), and Aspects of Love (1979); short stories and plays, In Dublin’s Quare City; My Dublin, My America, and I Celebrate Myself and You; contrib. num. reviews to Irish Times and film reviews for RTE Radio, resp. in 1960s and 1970s; contrib. to Envoy and Hibernia;

his reputation was injured by a reckless and illiberal profile in Robert Hogan’s Dictionary of Irish Literature (1979); recipient of Arts Council Bursaries in the 1980s; wrote and performed solo, Be Free With Me (Abbey 1984); also Songs of Love, solo recital (National Concert Hall, 1989); d. 6 Jan. 2012. DIW DIL

[ There is an Irish Times obituary online [28 Jan. 2012; accessed 24.09.2023.]

Poetry collections
  • Sunlight on a Square (1961).
  • Love in the Afternoon (1971).
  • Another Kind of Optimism (1974).
  • Voyage à Deux (1974).
  • Why are There So Many Blind People in Philadelphia (1979).
  • Aspects of Love (1979).
Short stories & plays,
  • In Dublin’s Quare City; My Dublin, My America, and I Celebrate Myself and You. [q.dates.]
  • ‘Irish Poetry Today’, in The Tablet (17th March 1973), p.17 [see infra].

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A website (authorised) at contains a page entitled “Literary Assassination” and dealing with the anonymous entry in Robert Hogan, ed., Dictionary of Irish Literature (1979) - quoted in full - which the poet abstained from suing solely on account of the financial costs involved. The site contains numerous poems.


Irish Poetry Today’, in The Tablet (17th March 1973), p.17.

Poetry didn’t come to a standstill in Ireland when Yeats died in 1939 - though from my lecturing experiences in Europe, the United States and Canada, it is clear that most students (and many professors) of literature outside Ireland believe that Irish poetry began and ended with Yeats. It is true, of course, (as Professor Brendan Kennelly points out in his excellent introduction to The Penguin Book of Irish Verse) that, after Yeat’s death, Irish poets found themselves somewhat rudderless. “A Colossus”, Brendan Kennelly says “breathing down the necks of the younger generation.”

Our problem, therefore, was twofold: to absorb and transcend Yeats’s influence. This we attempted to do in various ways. Austin Clarke- our eldest and best living Irish poet- has been rediscovered in the past decade. (In this much credit must be given to Liam Miller’s enlightened publishing house, The Dolman Press which has published most of Clarke’s new volumes- as well as republishing his earlier racy and imaginative verse-plays.) Austin Clarke continues to be one of Ireland’s most prolific poets. In fact he produced his masterpiece Mnemosyne Lay in Dust (a long narrative poem) six years ago at the age of 70.

But Clarke has one major contender for the accolade of being Ireland’s best poet since Yeats. Patrick Kavanagh, the Monaghan poet who died six years ago aged 60. Kavanagh - and Clarke - would share T. S. Eliot’s dictum that “there is no competition”; only the struggle to rediscover what has been discovered by our betters. For Kavanagh believed- and his poetry is saturated with the intensity of this belief- that “laughter is the most poetic thing in life; that is, the right kind of loving laughter.” In other words, no real poet should take himself seriously. Comedy and tragedy are merely opposite sides of the same coin: this is the universal discovery of saints, mystics, poets. “There are no answers,” as I discover in one of my own poems, “to real questions / Only the stab and grab of unknowing.”

But there are at least a half-dozen living Irish poets producing work of considerable intensity and commitment. Thomas Kinsella, presently Professor of English at Temple University, Pennsylvania, a powerful and resonant poet, is considered by one US critic to be “one of the most disturbing and accomplished poets alive.” He has also accomplished a masterly translation of the Irish epic The Tain. John Montague, a poet from the North, now living in Ireland again after many years in Paris, is another major and compelling voice. His recently published The New Siege - a long narrative poem - is startling in its fusion of poetic sensibility and national consciousness; a tour de force of imaginative insight of what T. S. Eliot called “The agony of others, newly experienced, involving ourselves.” Seamus Heaney, another Northern Irish poet (from Derry) has already an outstanding reputation outside Ireland as well as at home for an individual and incisive poetic sensibility which cuts like a hacksaw at all stodgy unrealities. He has been described as “one of the best of the younger poets on either side of the Irish Sea.” Brendan Kennelly, Professor of English at Trinity College, Dublin, is the most prolific- and I believe - the most rapidly evolving Irish poet of our times. His most recent collection Salvation the Stranger has all the hurt - but none of the whine - of contemporary Ireland. Compassionate, urgent and evocative, Kennelly’s latest poetry marks him as a poet to be watched with nervous excitement. He has chosen- in the best tradition of Keats and Kavanagh- to make himself vulnerable to, but undismayed by, the goodness of men’s hearts and the evil of men’s actions.

The new poets
Richard Murphy, Pearse Hutchinson, Anthony Cronin, Sean Lucy, Richard Weber, James Simmons, Michael Hartnett, Desmond O’Grady, Derek Mahon, Michael Smith, James Liddy, Eavan Boland, Eileann ni Chulleanain, Michael Longley - all are poets who are producing volumes of poetry as varied in technique and style as in thematic preoccupations. Which of these is writing the best poetry? The question is not only an irrelevance but an impertinence. Can any real poem be compared with another real poem? Can any real poet (Irish or otherwise) be compared with another real poet? I think not. The essence of poetry is its uniqueness and energy. This is what distinguishes it from prose. It’s not the poet’s output (or age) that’s relevant, but whether or not his response to experience can startle the reader (or the listener) to a re-awareness of self; a revitalisation of truth.

Is there any such thing as Irish poetry which makes it very different from, say, English or American poetry? There are, of course, tones and cadences of the English language as used by Irish poets which arguably could not be sounded by British or American or Australian poets. But, fundamentally, this does not alter the core of the poetry. Real poetry in any language is real because the poet refuses to be anything but himself. This applies, equally, to the very fine poetry being written in the the Irish language by such poets as Maire Merc an tsaoi (wife of Conor Cruise O’Brien); Mairton O’Diredin, Dominic O’Riordan, and Michael O’llanachean.
Have I omitted any names from my list of good practising Irish poets? (I am writing this appraisal during a US poetry-reading lecture visit without ready access to volumes of contemporary Irish poetry.) But I must add names of such poets as Monk Gibbon, Valentin Iremonger, Padriac Fallon, Paul Muldoon, MacDura Woods, if only to state that I have been moved by poems by all these poets, the eldest of whom is 77 and the youngest 22. (Valentin Iremonger, in fact, became in 1945 the first modern Irish poet.) This essay is not an inventory; but neither is it an all-embracing evaluation of Irish poetic talent. If, as has been said, defining poetry is a mug’s game- predicting poetic reputations is even more foolhardy.

Instead, let me illustrate a few qualities of the directness, clarity and vigueur of contemporary Irish poetry by quoting lines from a few of the poets I have mentioned. In all cases, the quotation is used to illustrate a truth, or illumination of truth, discovered by the poet in the course of the poem. Every real poem should achieve this.

Who, I wonder, fully
Understands the imminent predicament
Sprung from rooted suffering and folly?

Brendan Kennelly

O pity in their pride
And agony of wrong, the men
In whom God’s image died.

Austin Clarke

Too late, too late, my love, we turned to share
The agitation and the change of heart
Plucking examples from the empty air.

Thomas Kinsella

Who reads into distances reads
Beyond us.

Seamus Heaney

No one endures a similar fate
And no one will ever know
What happened in that room.

John Montague

The drums of childhood drum - o keep on drumming.
Childhood cannot sustain a second coming.

Basil Payne

What have these brief quotations got in common? Nothing, perhaps, except the fact that none of them could have been written, I believe, outside a poem; and each of them, I believe, exists as a discovered truth both inside and outside the poem in which it is contained. Did Irish poetry come to a standstill with the death of Yeats? If you are not convinced that the answer is “no”- or even if you are- the only way to decide is to read the poetry itself. Nearly all the poets I’ve mentioned are published by leading Irish and or English publishers. A poem is mere words on a page. Poetry happens when the poem “clicks” for the humble but responsive reader or listener.

Letter to Sybil: There is a letter to Sybil le Brocquy, Basil Payne, Cortona, 137 Rathfarnham Road , Dublin 14, tel. 904241, and dated 3 Feb. 1968, covering a copy of a poem included in Austin Clarke’s “Modern Anthology” on Radio Eireann (Mon. 4th Feb. 1968), with remarks: ‘As you’ll gather, I’ve tried to hit off an appraisal of Yeats’s aloof greatness – as captured by Henry Moore – and place it in counterpoint with the contemporary Ireland , political, social and cultural. But principally [verso] I’ve tried to be lighthearted – on the Kavanagh axiom of satire being ‘unfruitful prayer’ You were present at the unveiling so you’ll be able to assess how well (or otherwise) I’ve captured the atmosphere.’ [ See transcription of the letter in full - as attached.]

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