John Knowles, interview with Paul Durcan, in Fortnight (April/May 2005)

Details: John Knowles, interview with Paul Durcan, in Fortnight [Belfast] (April/May 2005), pp.21-22. [with photo-ports].

It’s a curious thing to be, a Professor of Poetry. Oxford University, of course, has had one for some time. Paul Durcan is the third Ireland Professor of Poetry, following John Montague and Nuala Ní Dhonilmaill. Three universities have a stake in the three year appointment Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast. The person appointed moves from one university residency to another. Currently, Paul Durcan is attached to Queen’s.

He will have his inaugural lecture at Queen’s at the beginning, of March and has been in residence at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry throughout March and April, spending two days a week at the Centre. His residency has been notable for the unfeigned interest he’s taken in the work of students at Queen’s and members of its writers group. It’s also a sign of his generosity of spirit, that he devoted his inaugural lecture to the work of fellow poet, Anthony Cronin.

Sitting in one of the many rooms that constitute the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, he compares it to the monasteries of early Christian Ireland - the beehive huts of the west coast - the poets and academics of the Centre working quietly away in the seclusion of their various cells. He’s pleased too to have the use of a university library, and shows me a volume of sermons written by Bishop John MacNeice (the poet’s father). The condemnation of ‘Americanism’ that he’s found in one of them, clearly chimes with his own reservations, not just about the moral climate of the United States, but also that of contemporary Ireland. “Do you ever take a holiday abroad?” runs one of the poems in his most recent collection, The Art of Life: ‘No, we always go to America (Ireland 2002)’.


When picking out some of the key poems of that collection though, he’s keen to acknowledge the poem “Rosie Joyce”, written in response to the birth of his granddaughter, as one that means a lot to him, with its encompassing and positive vision of Ireland. ‘There’s no such thing Rosie, as a Uniform Ireland’, he says in the poem ‘And please God there never will be.’ The poem also marks a personal turning point. Addressing his grand-daughter directly, he tells her: ‘you saved my life. For three years / I had been subsisting in the slums of despair.’ Commenting on the poem, he suggests that while genuine poetry has been written in great pain, ‘if you yourself are in a state of well-being, that nourishes and creates poetry and art and so on.’ He cites Keats’s reference to the ‘holiness of the heart’s affections.’

The feeling of a poem is something that should arise naturally, as here, out of the events or objects it describes. And Durcan’s poetry is a poetry that can achieve real feeling, precisely because of the care he takes to make sometimes wild and outlandish events believable. Speaking of the title poem of the Art of Life, he notes that ‘poetry should have a lot in common with journalism, the best kind of journalism, reporting as directly and efficiently as you can.’ He remembers in this context, an influential school teacher, ‘a wonderful teacher’, whose ‘favourite writers were people like Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, Hemingway. He used to bring to class the (then) Manchester Guardian and say, “boys, this is what writing is all about”.’

In the poem, Durcan takes great care with his description of a street artist in Florence, ‘With silver highlights in his black hair, / Black wraparound Ray-Ban sunglasses’, but he’s keen to stress the importance of transforming a report of an incident into a convincing work of art.

Towards the end of the poem there’s a reference to the head of a curator peering down from a window in the Uffizi Gallery, watching the street artist at work. The gallery is a sort of benign presence. The Uffizi suggests ‘certain great Renaissance paintings’, and the Crivelli painting of the annunciation in the National Gallery in London comes to mind. ‘The annunciation is taking place in the foreground of the painting and there are all these houses nearby,’ he explains, ‘and you see a head looking out the window - I love these details.’ The poem is ‘an attempt to report an incident that I was a witness to outside the Uffizi. I’ve tried to get it exactly as it happened, and at the same time to it transform it in the poem, in the way Crivelli transformed the details of the annunciation. Clearly the annunciation that Crivelli creates is not at all realistic, in the sense that the birth that happened in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, didn’t happen the way it does in Crivelli. He’s transforming it into a work of art’.

The craft of a poem matters greatly to Durcan. I can’t bear stuff that’s slapdash - dashed off as poetry,’ he says. Ironically, his own craft can be overlooked, or simply denied altogether, because of the effort he’s made to conceal it; an effort that marks all successful art. If a poem works, he suggests, ‘one of its qualities is that it looks effortless, but of course it’s anything but. Down my working life:’ he continues, ‘it’s been said that ‘it’s not really poetry at all, it’s chopped up prose’, this kind of thing... [the sense of] effortlessness can be misconstrued by certain kinds of critic.’

Paul Durcan is above all a poet who thinks in phrase and rhythm. ‘Rhythm and metre are your starting point’, he says. Anyone who’s heard his sometimes mesmeric poetry readings, will be aware of the importance of rhythm to his poetry. Perhaps surprisingly though, it’s T. S. Eliot he quotes when asked about his approach to reading poetry. He has the words Eliot wrote for the liner notes of a recording of the Four Quartets transcribed in a notebook, which he’s brought with him, and is keen to quote correctly: ‘what the reading of a poem by its author can and should preserve’, Eliot suggests, ‘Is the way that poem sounded to the author when he had finished it. The disposition of lines on the page, and the punctuation, can never give an exact notation of the author’s metric. The chief value of the author’s recording is as a guide to the rhythms.’

Listening to Durcan reading even just one of his poems, is indeed an invaluable guide to his metric. But like Eliot, he sees his reading as a guide to the poem on the page; it’s not an end itself. He’s not a performance poet’ - and hates to be described as one.

Music, he acknowledges, is an influence, but hard to pin down. ‘As early as I can remember’, he says, ‘music and singing had a huge effect on me. When I was a child my mother had these enormous pre-vinyl records. I remember John McCormack and Delia Murphy.’ Currently he’s listening to a Bob Davenport CD ‘over and over again’ - ‘a great singer from Tyneside’ Through adolescence, there was ‘Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, all those guys’ - the singers memorably commemorated with Van Morrison in a track recorded in 1990, “In the Days Before Rock’n’Roll”.

Remembering those singers coming through the wireless in the Mayo of the 1950s also triggers a reflection on just how important storytelling was at that time. ‘All my family come from the west of Ireland, where story telling was still very much a part of everyone’s life. I don’t mean necessarily formal storytelling. In many ways Mayo in the ’40s and ’50s was still a medieval society. Electricity hadn’t come yet. there was no running water... you could stay out in the road and one motor car might pass all day... people spoke in the old story telling way, so that when people spoke to you, in fact it was a story’. Narrative and storytelling have been central to Durcan’s poetry. A comparison might also be made with the storytelling qualities of the poetry of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, his predecessor as Ireland Professor of Poetry.

Art is a much more overt influence. Many of his volumes are based around paintings (including two entire collections, Crazy about Women and Give me your Hand ), and he often makes comparisons with painting when talking about poetry. ‘As a small boy in the early ’50s’, he says, ‘my mother used to bring me up in Dublin to Sheila Fitzgerald for painting classes. All I remember (I was five or six) is the smell of paint which I loved. I loved the whole atmosphere that was in her house. I love the cinema too, as an extension of painting, frame by frame. To get lost in a painting is one of the great joys still left to me. ‘He mentions how pleased he was to be able to use a Gerhard Richter portrait for the cover of the Art of Life - ‘one of the greatest contemporary painters’ - and how he was able to spend several days at a Richter retrospective at the Museum on modern Art in New York. ‘Of course, the only reason I was there was to give a poetry reading’, he adds.

The sense of losing yourself in a work of art is vital to his conception of poetry. ‘To me’, he says, ‘all great art amounts to the death of the ego ... The problem of the business of writing is that you start or are stuck with the ego, ‘I this’, ‘I that’, but if you can get going, suddenly you lose consciousness of yourself, an hour has past and you don’t know it.’ He compares it to the way a singer can get lost in a song. ‘That’s what we all want to happen. But unfortunately it’s hard to get going...’


Many of his poems are written from the point of view of someone else - often old people in his most recent collection - and he compares this to portrait painting. ‘I always try to become the other, and I think this is true of all of us. The writer has to become the other. It’s a truism to say that only by becoming the other, do you become yourself. Whereas if you dwell entirely [on yourself], if you live in a sort of cocoon, you may wave incredible arabesques of language, but I find it boring, that kind of thing.’

The ability to absorb himself in places and events, is also something that marks his work. He says he’s relished the chance to spend more than a few days in Belfast and has hugely enjoyed just walking around the streets. His residence in Queen’s has coincided though with numerous public statements from Sinn Féin and the IRA following the Robert McCartney murder. Here something of the black anger that can characterise his poetry becomes apparent. He’s been reading all the newspapers and finds the various statements ‘depressing beyond words. Every day Sinn Féin and the IRA have come out with a new batch of lies. I say lies advisedly’, he says. ‘Obviously they’ve murdered a lot of people over the years, but they’re in the business of murdering language. Almost every day there’s a new set of lies ... Words have become devalued. If there was a Nobel, Prize for propaganda’, he adds, ‘Sinn Féin would have long ago won that prize. They’re out on their own ... ahead of all the other political parties’, but recent pronouncements, he suggests, are beyond propaganda, are nothing more than barefaced lying.

It’s the radical contrast with what Durcan most wants from poetry that seems to hurt most here - that pleasure in writing, in a sense of verisimilitude, that comes only from the right use of words. Language used well, should be ‘a life-giving source of well-being. My dream in poetry’, he says, ‘is to get every word right.’

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