John P. Deane sees poetry as a way of placing life in perspective. For him, it holds a supreme power. “I put all the misery and suffering into the writing. If you can find the metaphor or the image, it takes living out of chaos and puts order on it.”
It makes sense. Deane is a poet of magisterial elegance, in works such as the spiritual, incantatory-like lament, “Fugue” (2000), he uses language with a purpose, yet despite its intent, the impact is as beautiful as it is challenging and direct; he looks more to feeling than sensation. A 1996 poem, “In Dedication”, expresses this well and could serve as his poetic manifesto.
On the publication of his latest novel, Undertow (Blackstaff), he arrives for interview far more concerned with his and Poetry Ireland s stalemated efforts to secure Thomas Kinsellas personal library as part of a proposed poetry centre. “We desperately need a sponsor. This is an important collection including the original Tain books, as well as the early Dolmen. Press books.”
Most of the books he carries with him to the interview are works. by poets he publishes, among them Winter Auf Weissem (Winter on White Paper), Eva Bourkes translation of a collection by German poet Elisabeth Borchers.
It is characteristic of Deane who, although a quiet, spiritual individual and an artist of intensity, has always looked beyond himself. It was Deane who purchased Austin Clarkes personal library for Poetry Ireland and the organisation later secured that of critic and poet John Jordan.
Deanes passion for poetry inspired him to establish the Dedalus Press in 1985 and to operate it from his home, then in Sandymount, and now in Templeogue where he lives. Before that, in 1979, he founded Poetry Ireland, the National Poetry Society “to give poetry a status which it lacked up to then. At that time, it was still a fly-by-night event, largely readings in.pubs. I tried to bring it out into the open and to give poets a status, and an income”. He is also general secretary of the European Academy of Poets founded in Luxembourg in 1996.
When John F. (he says the F. is important to him) Deane says he has been “living from poetry and for poetry since 197C he is right, as a gifted editor he has also provided encouragement and critical support for other poets. Highly regarded as a poet throughout Europe, he is published in Britain by Carcanet, has been translated into several European languages and also translates from French and Swedish. Deane particularly admires the senior Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer - “You must read him.”
Aware of the difficulties encountered by readers and poets in Ireland interested in international poetry, Deane has also battled to establish a national poetry centre which would include a world-class bookshop with a specialist poetry section.
“We almost succeeded in securing four or five rooms at Newman House and we were promised funding by the Department of the Arts, but it came to nothing and the space has since been given to a college department. Such a centre is a great loss to poetry in this country and literature in general.” It would seem he has not given up all hope just yet.
Despite his creative achievements and his efforts on behalf of particularly Irish and European poetry, Deane is not a member of Aosdána, the affiliation of artists from all disciplines. Established in 1981, individuals are elected by existing members. Initially, such an omission seems surprising - and outrageously short-sighted – perhaps Deane the artist has paid the price of being a discerning editor. But he has always been something of an outside; a common state for an artist, a natural state for an islander.
The second son in a family of four, he was born in 1943, and raised on Achill Island, Co Mayo. Although since the age of 18 he has lived mainly in Dublin, and for some years in Mornington, Co Meath, Deane remains a west of Ireland man. The island stays with you.
He remembers the days of the 1950s emigration. “Our house was at the crossroads. At 6 a.m., the bus would appear. People would come, some by horse and cart. You would bear the noise, the sorrow, the goodbyes. People on the way to Westport, to Dublin, and on to Liverpool or further. Did you know that Cleveland was called a second Achill ?
As with most places, Achill Island has changed, but the world of Deanes boyhood remains vivid to him. Not a person given to easy nostalgia, he seems too serious and practical for that; he is witty and has a poets gift for, choosing the right word in any context. “I was brought up in a wonderful landscape; dark, bleak, atmospheric. We had complete, luxurious freedom to spend the day safely. After breakfast we were told ‘Go. Come back for the Rosary.”
He smiles a rare smile and it becomes clear that the reference to the Rosary is intended as more than a passing recollection. Deane refers to the “militant religious life” of his upbringing. “It was not oppressive but it was all embracing.”
Echoes of Hopkins are apparent in his poetry. He is currently working on an anthology of religious poetry in English, spanning the centuries from an Anglo-Saxon/Old English classic, “The Dream of the Rood”, to the work of John Clare,. Robert Southey, R. S. Thomas, Geoffrey Hill, Ann Bradstreet and others. “At the moment, Im working through Emily Dickinson. There is a huge body of work. 1 admire her constructive approach to religion tempered by her cynicism.”
The darker sense of religion emerges in his conversation and memories: “Each day dawned with prayer / and each day died.” (From “Alices Harbour Bar”, included in the forthcoming collection, Manhandling The Deity, 2003) It is the weight of an absolute Catholicism that has dominated his experience of religion.
“I kind of slithered into the priesthood”, he says mildly, and recalls “cycling into UCD, wearing my clerical suit and collar and once being spat at” and he laughs abruptly.
He was not to be ordained - “I had all the gear, the trappings, but I left.”
At university he studied English and French. However he did not select his subjects. “As a seminarian, I was told ‘You do English and French, so I did.” Midway through his degree, his sense of vocation abandoned him. Deane then went on to complete an MA on the poetry of Hopkins, of whom Deane writes in “Artist“ (from Christ, with Urban Fox, 1997): “[…] our intent, depressive scholar / who gnawed on the knuckle-bones of words / for sustenance because God / scorched his bones with nearness / so that he cried with a loud voice out of the entangling, thorny / underbrush of language.”
He will be 59 in December. While he seems younger in reality than he does in photographs, Deane, who is an interesting character, looks as if he has had his share of suffering.
Again, as is evident from his poetry, there has been immense personal loss. His first wife, Barbara Sheridan, a Dubliner, died in 1980 from lupus. Now a condition confidently kept under control with medication, as recently as 25 years ago it was potentially a terminal disease. She was diagnosed at 30, battled it for some years and had two children. Her death at 37 left Deane with two small daughters; a five year old and a one year old. “It was hard.”
About that time, the Arts Council approached him to participate in the Writers in Schools programme. He accepted and spent a few years travelling the country with his daughters. In 1984, he married Ursula Foran, a teacher, with whom he has another daughter.
Deane and his younger brother, the composer Raymond - the elder still very much a west of Ireland man making sense of Dublin, the younger more of a Dublin sensibility retaining trace elements of an island he left at the age of 10 - are exceptional products of one family. Their mother, a Mayo woman, taught in Achills primary school. “She enjoyed her job,” he says. A possible clue to the creativity of the Deane sons was their father, a true original and native of Co Kerry who had settled on Achill, via Co Donegal and ran the island dole office.
He was a man of strong imaginative influence, He read Gogol, Pushkin, Dostoevsky in the original, having taught himself Russian, he also taught himself German. He listened to Carmen. Opera was always a solace ...” Running the dole office did not fulfil him and his son speaks of his fathers unhappiness. “That poem, “Alices Harbour Bar”, best describes my dad - says Deane. “He in his office, / with papers, notes, files, inks and dossiers; / rising with a sigh […] The value of a life / clinging to ink- at the nib-tip.”
There is no doubt that Deane is instinctively a poet, for him it is his given mode of expression, the power of the exact word, the image. Of “Fugue”, his most technically ambitious poem to date, he says: “It has a narrative structure to it and it has the structure of the Liturgical cycle from Christmas to Easter. I like an identifiable structure to a collection, not just to individual poems.”
But he also writes novels and short stories. “Poetry is the main thing for me - but anything that wont become poetry, goes into fiction.” He particularly enjoys the short-story form, remarking on the perfection of it. His first collection, Free Range, was published in 1994; his second, The Coffin Master and Other Stories (2000), is dominated by the superb title work, a novella of near religious power. Characterisation lies at the heart of his storytelling. Of his fiction to date, he points to his third novel, In the Name of the Wolf (1999), as “the first of the novels I stand by. I wrote it as a kind of horror story.”
It is a dark, sophisticated work. Incited by his first wifes experience of lupus, the work is not an account of the illness. Instead it is a strange tale in which illness is a metaphor for an invisible evil. True of Deanes fiction, there is black humour and superb pen portraits of a mixed group of characters including Casimir Conlon, the local butcher, oppressed by his bedridden mother and his doomed sexuality.
Characterisation is also vital to Undertow, a narrative divided between the Achill of the 1950s and the somewhat less brave new world of the island in 1997. “The characters are largely based on real people,” says Deane. Central to it are extremes and contrasts, with the characters all engaged in various bids for freedom and are linked by relentless connections of fate.
It is a powerful book, often alleviated even at its darkest by the abrupt humour.
Deane also observes our society. A new poem, “The Dead and the Undead of St Michans” (from the forthcoming collection), is a brilliant denouncing of the vandals, “the cider drinkers, the language killers” who “came at night from our impatient streets” to desecrate the ancient wonders of a tiny Dublin church.
Still, he is a poet and as one must be asked why do poets, with few exceptions, invariably achieve far less attention than novelists?
“I dont know. Perhaps poetry is too demanding of the reader. It is easier to come to terms with a novel.”
Is the standard of poetry high?
“The biggest problem is the lack of self-criticism, and with that, the lack of criticism.” Above all, Deane, shaped by Hopkins, Eliot, R. S. Thomas and Austin Clarke, believes it is important “to try to measure up to poets you admire most, its a help”.