Interview by Zoë Brigley
“For me, a poem must have a certain lyric sense, not in a fascistic way, but the song must be somewhere within it“
He was up a ladder tending books on old high shelves – Are you Church of Ireland? We hire only Church of Ireland here. Out on the quays, a fine hard wind blew down the river from the plains of Kildare and the rain-addled Midlands. I was so young the hardy wind whistled in the harp of my ribs. I had acquired a tale to embellish in letters home that would emphasise how well I had taken to this river city and wasn't it a wondrous thing, irony? To my secret self I laid out a quilt of disappointment and the bright glaring squares would take time to fade. That as he climbed into his books he had recited to me from the Book of Prejudice which in rough translation I had read already and often in the red brick North between gable art and bonfire or by the light of a hiring manager’s embarrassment yet now as if from a cloud in the dry weather of bookshelves a similar angel chanted the Great Interrogation – while wicker panniers of books hazardous as wells overfilled snapped their cut price pages like dry tongues mad for rain.
First, I have to ask, was this based on a true incident?
It was indeed! I was stunned at the time by the irony, having just moved from Belfast to Dublin and sought my first job. In Belfast, it was common to be asked what school one attended and thus give away one’s religious persuasion – that could get you the job, or, most times, not. Discrimination on religious grounds was so common that one didn’t really think it was wrong or unusual. Here I was hunting my first job in Dublin aged eighteen and where such things were not supposed to happen, and the proprietor asked me a question even more prejudicial than any legally permitted in Northern Ireland at the time. No, I didn’t get that position, to my chagrin. It was a very venerable and much-frequented bookstore, I might add.
I enjoy your use of the couplets with a long line. What made you decide on this particular form?
I think I very seldom know what form, especially line-form, a poem will adapt until I give it its head and see how it runs. In that sense, I think a poem often defines its own form, or some aspect of the poem does, without the author giving it too much thought. For me, a poem must have a certain lyric sense, not in a fascistic way, but the song must be somewhere within it. Which is why, perhaps, I involved myself very early with folk-song, especially early folk-song, where the poetry is virtually unbeatable and the song element is obvious.
Nowadays, I don’t know that there are many who would take readily to the strict forms of traditional ballads in their poetry. Which is a pity, in one sense. I’ve received odd looks when, giving a poetry session, I have started out by suggesting that the participants seek out an anthology of old folk-songs and examine how perfectly the poetry works, and now and then I’ve been known to sing a stanza or two for effect. Do we too often neglect to at least take a peek at what’s been done in popular ballads, whose authors no one knows now, yet which continue to be sung? I’m labouring the point: couplets, or any form, liberate you into the discipline of composing a poem. They say: ‘You are working on a poem. This is not prose.’
The phrasing in this poem is quite wonderful and the way that you spread it across the line breaks creates much tension which makes us want to read on and does many other clever things. For example, the line break across stanzas in the Book of Prejudice which in rough translation I had read // already just gives a sense of exhaustion. Who are your favourite writers for great line breaks?
For me, line breaks arise from breath, that is, the length you might expend on saying a line out loud. That seems to occur naturally in a poem, it tells you when to stop. Especially, I think, when working with long lines – the poem won’t sprint if it’s meant to walk, it won’t expend its energy unnecessarily. Shorter, pithier lines tend to be jumping hurdles, but they’re built for that. In some early Irish poetry and, I daresay, Welsh, the short-lined poem can be very full of energy, very compact and powerful. And the rhythm is vital, too. I’ve watched the late Sorley McLean beat the rhythm of a poem with his hand, and an old Conamara poet friend of mine, sadly no longer with us, Seosamh O Guairim, recited his poems with a
swaying motion of his body to maintain rhythm. In both cases, the poem and the poet became, for that instant, one natural machine. I don’t know that I have a favourite line-break poet, as there are quite a few to learn from, and as I say, I learned about employing line-breaks by a method of, if you like, natural observation of how much my own internal breath could take. I saw it, of course, in other poetry. Is it going slightly out of fashion?