How did you come into poetry and how did you come to poetry?
I don’t really think you come to poetry; poetry comes to you. I would say that I knew virtually from the age of three – which was the age at which I started reading – that I wanted to write something or other. Of course, when you are a child, children’s books are what you want to write. But, very quickly, I was responding to poetry more than to anything. In school, when everyone else was hiding the book underneath the desk, if we were supposed to have learned a poem by heart, I was hoping I would be asked to recite. Not because I was some kind of goody-good, but for the pure pleasure of having those wonderful words in my mouth and being able to declaim them.
What I recall from school is a physical reaction to language. The first glimpse of Shakespeare we were offered was
When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the Shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail….
I almost fainted as I listened to this. I can also remember a class in which a teacher walked into the room and, without uttering a word, started to chalk on the blackboard
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry….
This – the words, not the chalk! – brought me out in goosebumps and I suppose I gradually wanted to see if I could induce goosebumps of my own making. But I have remained more interested in other people’s poems than my own, a fascination which I put to use by writing a lot of criticism.
For most people, words are a currency, a little like money. But, for you, do the actual tokens have values in themselves?
What we call inspiration in poetry is usually a visitation of words and rhythms rather than ideas. I find that if I have the right phrase in my head, nothing will stop me; but if I don’t, nothing will start me. I have never taken or given a poetry workshop – poetry, for me, is a private and spontaneous pursuit, not one which is communal or induced. When I was growing up in Thurles, where the firemen were part-timers, they would have to drop whatever they were working at if the fire siren sounded. Poetry is something like that – if the siren goes off, you have to interrupt whatever you are doing and respond to the call by jotting the phrase down. But the alarm can be a false one, the call may be a hoax. Poets who are anxious about their output see infernos where there are not even chimney fires. They clutter poetry publications in the same way that people with minor ailments are accused of crowding the casualty wards of hospitals.
How do you draw people to poetry, how do you move people to be open to it? How do you get people to try it?
I’m not in the least bit proselytising about the art; I have nothing of the salesman in me when it comes to poetry. I am particularly sceptical about the idea of trying to offer people so-called accessible poems as a lure. I don’t believe in accessible poems, I only believe in good poems. I think it was Anne Sexton – a second-rate American poet – who said that to be second-rate in poetry was to be nowhere at all.
I would say that poetry for most people is like the Christmas tree that is kept in the attic and is taken down in its appropriate season. And I suppose the season for poetry is the season of love or the season of death – those times when people look to poetry for sustenance. And maybe that’s one of the fundamental roles of the art. The people I work with have all kinds of interests – they may be bird watchers or soccer fans or chess players; they don’t try to convert me to chess and I don’t try to convert them to poetry. What people want from me at the office is the answer to crossword clues, help with completing tie-breakers for competitions (’I love Natural Gas because…’), things which are regarded as turning my alleged word-skills to practical use.
If I were exposing people to poetry, I’d like them to be exposed to the best poems ever written, even if they can’t make sense of them immediately. The sheer power of a great poem is enough to guarantee that it will ultimately make itself felt if the reader – however uninitiated in the art – is in a receptive mood. But I don’t assume – just because I was receptive to poetry at an early age, just because it brought me out in goosebumps – that poetry is going to bring everyone out in goosebumps rather than yawns.
You have a full-time day-job, as one would describe it. How do you manage to combine this with your creative work?
I tend to think of poetry as a privileged space one enters from time to time. This may be wishful thinking, but I feel that the more pressured the space, the more intense the response you get when you actually sit down to write there. I have very little time left for writing when the working and commuting and corresponding and lawn-cutting and the rest of it are over. But, much as I would love to be allowed to stay home in the ivory tower, it’s probably a healthy thing to be shoved out into the grit and grime of the world. You can expand the scope and the vocabulary of poetry by bringing to it your long-term experience of worlds and words with which poets are rarely acquainted at first-hand.
Like all except the big names, I can lay claim to no more than a marginal poetry constituency. Not enjoying the poetry equivalent of a safe parliamentary seat, I have no option but to earn my living in some alternative way. I won’t deny that it can be more than a little disconcerting sometimes to think of others out there having lots of time to sweat over hot poems while you are busily manufacturing lifeless prose to your boss’s specifications…. Still, you do learn from the day-job how to work under pressure and how to organise yourself fairly efficiently, so you are equipped to some degree at least to offset the obvious disadvantages of your situation.
It is only since ‘The Bottom Line’ that I have been regarded as an office poet and I’m disinclined to fulfil the pigeon-holing expectations which go with this – of writing lots more poetry on the same theme, in particular. ‘The Bottom Line’ took me completely by surprise, most of it coming in an effortless surge over a very short period. I certainly hadn’t deliberately set out to write a long poem on the office world – if anything, I had assumed that I was insufficiently distant from the material for this to be possible.
There is another linguistic level at which my life and my language intersect, namely in the production of the memos and so on that are a fundamental part of my job. Official language sets out to be formal and respectful, but it is old-fashioned to my ear, always at least a generation behind the living language of the time. Editors almost never change a word in the essays or reviews that I write for them. The greatest editorial intervention I experience is in connection with my official work, where my superiors – with whom I get on extremely well, incidentally – re-write memos to ensure that they conform to the standard official mode.
Is this because of their particular needs or because they don’t share your discrimination regarding language?
Official language has specific expectations going with it: that it will be couched in a certain tone and will restrict itself to a certain vocabulary. So-called creative language, on the other hand, can be as inventive, as playful, as subversive, as it likes. Wallace Stevens, the great office poet, looked on poetry as ‘an unofficial view of being’; if, like me, the poet is a public official at work, then he makes the shift to being a private unofficial at home – a shift which adds considerably to the relish with which one settles down to write poems and reviews.
Mention of Wallace Stevens reminds me to say that there are any number of precedents for poets working in non-academic jobs. Thomas Kinsella and Padraic Fallon were civil servants; outside of Ireland, you find T.S. Eliot (a banker and publisher), Roy Fuller (a solicitor), R.S. Thomas (a clergyman), William Carlos Williams (a pediatrician), Philip Larkin (who was a librarian) and many others…. The best English-language poets of the century have, as often as not, been worker-poets – which, alas, is not to say that all worker-poets are good poets!
Can you tell me about the background to ‘The Bottom Line’?
‘The Bottom Line’ is a 550-line poem about the worlds of business, bureaucracy, offices, that kind of thing. From years of working in offices where I came into close contact with the business community – but also from having friends in business and from reading the financial press – I became both intrigued and repelled by the language of commerce. That language can be viewed as ugly and transitory but it is inventive and creative too, an Adam capable of naming the contemporary beasts (which now happen to be digital and mechanical). Business is transacted in a world of measurables – output, pre-tax profits, stock exchange indices – whereas poetry likes to think of itself as dealing in immeasurables and infinities.
To speak of ‘The Bottom Line’ as if it had been planned or premeditated in some way would be dishonest, because – as I said earlier – there was nothing conscious or foreseen about it. Certain phrases were beating about in my head and the more I wrote them down, the more new ones followed on their heels. Because a single take on the business world would not be anything like sufficient to do justice to it – or indeed to my own attitude to it – the poem is cubist in construction and written from a multiplicity of perspectives. The obvious poetic response to adopt to business would have been a hostile one or a satirical one. That seemed too easy to me; I also wanted to be sympathetic to this world, to recognise that many of its inhabitants may be unfulfilled, pursuing careers that are not their true calling, grappling with private fears and failures and responsibilities. I hoped to be true to that aspect of it no less than the more critical or satirical side. I didn’t want a black and white poem – maybe, in the context, the black and red of credit and debit would be more appropriate colours to choose!
Is there any element of autobiographical material in your poetry?
Rather than being directly autobiographical, I often distance myself from material to which I feel close by writing in an impersonal way or, for that matter, by adopting a persona. There is nothing at all wrong with being autobiographical unless it spills over into confessionalism, in which case readers may confuse sensationalism in the life with merit in the work. Behaving egotistically is something poets are already far too skilled at; they shouldn’t be encouraged to capitalise on this through exhibitionist writing.
Can I ask you about the role of the poet in society? Is the poet any way significantly more responsible in this regard than the average citizen?
My belief is that if you look after the language, then the politics will look after itself. If you take the care and trouble to represent things precisely as you perceive them, literally and imaginatively, you will have discharged any obligation to society which you may have. To arrogate to yourself some larger role as seer or clairvoyant is to succumb to a deluded megalomania of a kind which is endemic in the literary world.
Since words are spoken by everyone, the custody of language is a sufficient responsibility in itself for a poet. To inscribe in language some hitherto unexpressed area of experience – to fill in some blank corner of the human canvas – is worthwhile; to speak the small truths that feed into the bigger Truth. Also, the aspiration of poetry is always towards the creation of something permanent in language: in our era of the disposable, the ephemeral, this is counter-cultural – as, indeed, is the fact that genuine poetry transcends the blinkered vision of the journalistic present; it inhabits the present, but it is also very much in dialogue with the inherited forms and the great voices of the past.
What role does subject-matter play in poetry?
Poetry, when it is reviewed, is normally discussed on the basis of its subject-matter, because that is the most tangible part of the work. More important than what is being said is how it is being said – including the sub-music of the poem, its undercurrent, its pitch, its tone. These are the intangibles really, rather like the whistle which only a certain species of animal can hear. But poetry itself teaches you how to hear these sounds and you won’t have ventured many lines into a poem before you know whether its author is capable of operating in the multi-level way which mastery of the art demands. However tongue-in-cheek he may have intended to be, I rather agree with Duncan Bush who said that – similar to the manner in which a trained musician can tell, by merely looking at a score, whether it is any good or not – a trained poet can judge a poem’s worth by looking at it (even before actually reading it). Texture is always one of the first attributes to reveal itself.
If poems could be tracked by an ECG or a lie detector, you could quickly pick out the dodgy bits, the dishonest bits, the parts where the graph wavers because the poet effectively inserts stage directions such as Pause for laughter or Please applaud or whatever. I’m all for laughter in poetry, but it should be evoked by something which is intrinsic, organic, to the poem – not something which is tacked on with a view to manipulating an audience reaction. The problem with humour, though, is that people approach poetry with such serious expectations that they may miss the humour on the page if it’s not laid on fairly heavily. Insofar as my poems are humorous, it tends to be in a black or deadpan way; people often won’t permit themselves to believe that you could possibly be whimsical about a sombre subject like death unless your intention is conveyed pretty unambiguously at a poetry reading.
Does your fascination with language arise from its sound and structure or with syntax – or a composite of these things?
Poetry is a loyalty to language before it’s a loyalty to anything else. If you are a journalist, for instance, you may be expected to sensationalise a story. If you are an advertiser or auctioneer, you may be expected to whip up language in certain ways. There are, of course, poets too who distort the language but they are lesser poets for doing so; indeed, they are not, properly speaking, poets at all.
If you are writing poetry, you are involved in according every word exactly the weight it should have – perhaps the exact weight it was given by the anonymous person whose impulse first brought the word into being. You are honouring the people whose need was great enough to come up with words like ‘thirst’ and ‘trust’ and ‘pain’ and ‘yearn’. A true poem would be like a house that never needed to be maintained, in which the paper never peeled and the paint never faded. But that kind of poem – in which every word emits a pristine glow – would be a verbal miracle. Most of the poems we read and write are temporary dwellings, easily demolished because of poor structural engineering or sub-standard materials. One of the most fascinating and alluring aspects of poetry is precisely the fact that a poem is an almost impossible thing to write.
Paradoxically, and despite all I have said about language, poetry – at its heart – is silence. It is an art of words but it seems as if its deepest power lies in the ability to take you right to the point at which words fail and silence begins – the silence of awe, the silence of the irrational, the silence of the universe…. You look out for a moment on an infinite horizon to confront the essence of what it’s like to be a solitary human being on a strange, infinitesimally small planet in the universe.
[Edited version of an interview made for broadcast on RTE Television’s Undercover]
Irish Literary Supplement (Fall 1998)