I came to write poetry in my early twenties as a means, literally, of ex-pression, of getting some of the pressures and conflicts of being a young adult out of my head and onto a page. It saved my sanity then and has since brought me into contact with many wonderful writers, living and dead. Patrick Kavanagh, famously said ‘I dabbled in verse and it became my life’. This is how it happens.
I was not one of those young people who always knew that she wanted to be a writer. Apart from a few heart-broken lines written in real purple ink as a teenager ( I remember mixing the red and blue Quink ink and being rather pleased with the colour), I never wrote a poem until I was twenty-two. Coming where I came from, being ‘a writer’ didn’t present itself as an option and I was startled when an older brother suggested it to me as I was wondering what I should do when I left college. However, I cannot remember a time when I did not enjoy poetry. This was something which I received as a gift from my parents and teachers and from the culture which I encountered as a child and as a young adult.
I grew up in Dunfanaghy, a village in north west Donegal. My mother had a deep love and knowledge of English poetry. She had studied English at Queen’s University, Belfast, in the nineteen thirties. She was the first of her family to go to college and neither of her parents had more than a primary education. As neither of them could sing a note, at social gatherings in their farmhouse in east Co. Tyrone during her childhood, entertainment frequently took the form of the recitation of popular poems. There was a great deal of romantic, nationalist verse— ‘The Man from God Knows Where’, etc.. My mother remembered her father reciting two of his favourites— Robbie Burns’s ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’ and ‘Dawn on the White Hills of Ireland’. In my study I have a leather-bound copy of Burns’s poems, given to my grandfather by a young nurse when he was very ill in hospital in Belfast as a young man. Gifts of words, like good tunes, are passed on and on.
As young adults my mother and her brother befriended the elderly poet, Alice Milligan, who lived near them, at Mountfield, Co Tyrone. Alice became an important presence in my mother’s life. The first poem which I learned, apart from nursery rhymes and the rhymes in my infant school readers, was her ‘When I was a little girl in a garden playing.’
My father was the principal of the local two-teacher primary school in Dunfanaghy. As a young man he had written poetry in Irish – lyrical, introverted, often religious poetry. He published under a female Nom de Plume, ‘Róise Nic a’Ghoill’, a play on the place name ‘Ros Goill’. In teaching, he communicated to us his own pleasure in words, imagery and rhythm as we chanted ‘The LIttle Waves of Breffny’ or ‘The Daffodils’ or ‘Duncan’:—
He is gone on the mountain,
He is lost to the forest,
Like a summer dried fountain
When our need was the sorest.
I am reminded of Seamus Heaney saying ‘A poem or a song learnt in childhood is fossil fuel for the soul.’ (He did, of course, say this at a time when we still thought it was OK to burn fossil fuels!)
I started secondary school in 1967, the year of the introduction of free secondary education, and had the great good luck to have the doors of English literature swung wide open by Augustin Martin, through his Exploring English and Soundings anthologies. I was taught by two exceptional English teachers. In the Franciscan convent school in Falcarragh, which I attended until Intermediate Certificate, we had a diminutive young Scottish nun, Sr. Dolores, who was both demanding and passionate in her teaching. Octavio Paz says that enchantment is one of the necessary qualities of poetry. One of my paths into enchantment was her reading of ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ in her Scottish accent. I can still feel Sir Patrick Spens’s terror at being charged with a task to which he knew he was unequal, and I can still see him drowned on the bed of the North Sea ‘Wi’ the Scots lords at his feet.’ After the Intermediate Certificate I moved to Loreto College, Milford, where we were taught English by a Mrs. Deeney. With a very formal teaching style and thorough preparation, she introduced her students to the delights of Donne and Herbert, of Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley, of Yeats, Kavanagh, Clarke and Kinsella.
I had a vague notion that if I got to university I would study English and French. However, by some flick of fate I won an entrance scholarship in history and decided to study history and politics instead. In my early years as a student at University College, Dublin, an older brother gave me birthday presents of a translation of Pablo Neruda’s The Captain’s Verses and a selection of Antonio Machado’s early poems translated by the late Michael Smith. Neruda is a poet whose work I loved when I was young. But Machado is a poet to whom I come back again and again, as to a fountain.
Machado’s own solitude is so profound that it becomes a companionship. The qualities of attention, detachment and understatement in his poems, allied to his unabashed love of beauty and his depth of feeling, give them their strength. Also, I was drawn to Machado because, in an age of logical positivism, which was the prevailing intellectual weather when I was a student, he spoke unselfconsciously, without embarrassment and in an utterly fresh way, of the soul— the soul as a garden, as a beehive in the heart. He had rescued the soul from the hierarchies and power structures which sought to control populations and he identified it as that in us which is drawn to beauty and which honours compassion and human kinship in its widest sense.
When I was a student, Pasternak and Yevtushenko were popular and their work was available in English translation. I was, at this stage, a passionate reader of poetry but not a writer. A poet friend tells me that he almost believes that books are able to move around on their own— at times they seem hide from us on our own bookshelves. At other times they fling themselves across our paths, screaming to be read. The latter always happens when we need them most. One of the books which cast itself across my path was A Net of Fireflies, a beautifully bound and illustrated collection of translations of Japanese Haiku which an Australian friend, passing through Dublin, lent me in the year when I was finishing college. When I say that she lent it, it would be more accurate to say that she showed it to me— it was holiday reading given to her by a friend before she left Melbourne— and I buried my head so deeply in it that she, most magnanimously, not only left it with me as she headed on her travels around Ireland, but subsequently sent me a companion volume, A Chime of Windbells. Again, as with Machado, the experience was one of utter enchantment.
These were books which I encountered in my late teens and very early twenties, a time when we are open and aesthetically hungry. I cannot over-emphasise the importance to me of encountering this poetry in translation. The poems and songs which we encounter at this age are soul-guides as we emerge from a confused, pupa-like stage to become our adult selves. And, perhaps, poems in translation are entirely our own in a sense in which the poems which we learn at school never can be. Totally unmediated by teachers, we can feel the aesthetic force of them directly, can feel a kinship, across chasms of time and chasms of culture with the poet who wrote them.
The mid-seventies were exciting years for Irish society and modern Irish poetry. Cracks had begun to appear in the deeply conservative Catholic culture of post-independence Ireland and there was a flowering of poetry in response to the troubles in Northern Ireland. I spent many rainy Saturday afternoons in the Eblana bookshop in Dublin, leafing through volumes of John Montague, Seamus Heaney, Francis Harvey, Michael Hartnett, Eavan Boland and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanain. The latter two were still young writers in their thirties and I could not have imagined how, with Nuala Ní Dhómhnaill, they would transform the landscape of Irish poetry. The quality of their work and their confidence and courage in challenging presumptions of what constituted an Irish poem opened the door wide to my generation of Irish women, the ‘free secondary education’ generation.
I left college in 1977, started to teach in Dublin and went through a rather stressful and lonely period as my college community dispersed and I took on a demanding teaching job. I loved poetry and music and decided to try my hand at them. The music is another story but, I went, with my friend, Mary Armstrong, for moral support, to an anarchic and wonderful workshop run by the poet, Dermot Bolger, who was about nineteen at the time. It was held in the Grapevine Arts Centre, in a basement in North Great George’s Street. Among the members of that first literary community were Philip Casey, Pat McCabe, Anne Hartigan, Pauline Fayne and a delightful, gentle member of the Irish Armed Forces called Donal Dempsey, who wrote surreal poetry and who frequently attended the workshop when he was meant to be on sentry duty at the army’s main camp on the Curragh, Co Kildare. We always half-expected to hear that Donal had been court-martialled for his devotion to the muse.
None of us knew anything about literary fashion or proprieties, so we felt free to share our enthusiasms and to look at the poetry which we loved with a view to finding out how a poem worked— or didn’t work. Dermot Bolger was once so lost for words after someone read a particularly zany poem that he got up, mounted a bicycle, which he had carried down to the basement for safety, and silently cycled around and around our circle of chairs.
As a recent graduate of history and politics, I thought that I would be writing political poetry. Instead, I found that the imagery which came to me was full of the wind-ripped skies, the mountains, headlands and sea-edges of my Donegal childhood. Every writer writes out of the strata of emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual experience laid down since earliest childhood. Reading Haiku and Machado, I became aware of the phenomenon of emotional resonance, of evocation as exemplified in the Haiku form, of the way in which one clear crisp image, or the layering of two images, could have an effect equivalent to that of a musician’s holding down a string lightly and playing a harmonic. I learned that what is stated is usually less important than what is evoked. A chance reference to Ezra Pound led me to his Chinese translations and his essays on poetry. My first published poem (under the Irish version of my name, Máire Ní Chanainn) appeared in David Marcus’s New Irish Writing page in the Irish Press in, I think, 1979. It was heavily influenced by Pound’s Cathay and his ‘A Few Don’t for Imagists.’
Another, more distant, writing community centred around Listowel Writers’ Week, which I had started to attend at about this time, sitting in on Brendan Kennelly’s poetry workshops. Brendan was a gifted and generous teacher. He said little but succeeded in creating a space where people felt free to air and discuss their work and have it gently pummelled into shape. The week was great fun, imbued with the energy and high spirits which I continue to associate with County Kerry. I attended the festival regularly from 1979 until the late 1980s and met up with a great range of writers, among them Anne Hartigan and Pauline Fayne, whom I already knew, John F. Deane, Nuala Ní Dhómhnaill, Michael Hartnett, John Montague, Michael Coady, Edward Power, Gabriel Fitzmaurice and an eccentric, genial farmer who, we were told, ‘owned eighty acres of the best farming land in East Cork, all gone to ragwort and nettles’. Not one, but two, muses had seduced him away from agricultural pursuits. He played the uillean pipes and wrote under the pen-name ‘Dónal na Gréine’. Brian McMahon, whose short stories we had read at school, and John B. Keane, whose play, Sive, was one of the first grown-up plays which I had seen— in an Irish language version— when I was eleven or twelve, were major presences. Among the visiting foreign poets whom we heard in Listowel were Thomas Tranströmer, Ted Hughes and the Romanian poet, Liliana Ursu. Some of the acquaintances formed at Listowel Writers’ Week developed into deep and long-lasting friendships. For me, as is, I think, the case for most writers, community is essential, to offset the solitude of writing.
I had a vague idea that I might become a historian and decided to teach at primary level for two years to finance a Master’s degree. As two years became five, I began to take writing quite seriously. By the time that I had gone back to college and completed my Master’s Degree in International Relations in Cambridge in 1983, although I had enjoyed the year greatly, I knew that it was poetry, not history, that I wanted to have at the core of my life. I toyed, briefly, with the idea of returning to college to study English but had no way of financing further study. Also, English literature departments at that time were much preoccupied with literary theory and I could not see how this would be of help to me as I tried to learn how to write. University Writer-in-Residence positions and Creative Writing courses were virtually unheard of in Ireland at the time so there was no prospect of making a living from poetry. Any poets I knew either had a day job unrelated to poetry, worked as editors or taught literature. I decided to return to teach at primary level. The short teaching day should, in theory, afford me time to write.
I took a chance and moved to Galway City. This gave me access to the granite coasts and quartzite mountains of nearby Connemara, to the Aran Islands, which I already knew a little, having already spent summers on Inis Oirr, teaching in an Irish college, and to the limestone karst of Co Clare. Galway was a particularly fortunate choice, as I arrived at the beginning of an artistic renaissance. A lively and unpretentious literary community was coming together— among the writers were Eva Bourke, Rita-Ann Higgins, Fred Johnston, Michael Gorman, the late Anne Kennedy and, very importantly, Jessie Lendennie and Mike Allen who set up The Salmon literary journal and Salmon Press. A few years later Mary O Malley returned from Portugal to join that writing community and Fred Johnson founded the Cúirt International Poetry Festival, which created another focus and brought fresh voices to Galway— among them two poets whose work I respected greatly, Denise Levertov and R.S. Thomas. I had been introduced to Levertov’s work by another poet, Pat O Brien, and she had became a very important voice for me.
Even before the inception of Cúirt, I had heard Norman McCaig read in the Atlanta Hotel on Dominic Street and was smitten by his pithy short poems. Here was someone else writing about mountains and small lakes and doing it so very well. His poetry reminded me in some respects of the luminous poems of Francis Harvey, whose In the Light on the Stones I had bought in the Eblana bookshop years previously. Originally from Fermanagh, Frank lived in Donegal town and wrote about the Bluestacks Mountains and, with deep empathy, about the people who lived in them. My neighbour, Eva Bourke, lent me a copy of Adam Czernowski’s anthology, The Burning Forest, introducing me to the rich world of Polish post-war poetry— another door opening.
Two other writers whom I met not long after arriving in Galway and with whom I developed friendships were Tim Robinson and John Moriarty. Well before I met him, Tim’s inspired maps had opened gateways for me into the hidden crevices and time-deep wonders of the Burren and the Aran Islands. John kept doorways to the spiritual life open to me with his constant assertion ‘We are not re-cycled groceries, there is something of the divine in us.’ Although in their convictions and cosmologies they remained diametrically opposed to each other, Tim being a devout materialist and John believing that ‘matter is spirit in hibernation’, they became great friends. They shared a reverence for the earth and a fear of the destruction being wreaked upon it by the human race. John used to say that humanity is like the Titanic, arrogantly steaming directly towards an iceberg. In addition to his map-making and his writing, Tim devoted much energy to protecting the ecosystems of Roundstone Bog and of the Aran Islands. There was always a welcome and stimulating conversation in John’s tiny house in Toombeola and in Tim and his wife Mairead’s tide-lapped house a few miles away at the end of Roundstone Pier. We used also meet at Clifden Arts Festival, founded by Brendan Flynn in the late seventies. Tim and Mairead were immensely supportive of John during his last years, after he was diagnosed with cancer.
At this time another gift, from a poet friend, was a book of translations, News of the Universe – Poems of Two-Fold Consciousness by the American poet, Robert Bly, a book which included translations from many traditions. It emphasised our links with the other forms of life on this planet. It introduced me to the work of Theodore Roethke, of Mary Oliver, of Rumi, of Rainer Maria Rilke and it explicitly affirmed a growing intuition, that if poetry is about anything, it is about nourishing the human spirit, whatever that may be. From the time I started to write poetry, I was surprised to find myself strongly drawn to the poetry and essays of American poets, or poets living in America— Denise Levertov, Theodore Roethke, Czeslaw Milosz, Mary Oliver and, more recently, Jane Hirschfield, Naomi Shihab Nye and Adam Zagajewski.
I published my first collection, Oar, at the end of 1990, when I was thirty-four. I had been publishing occasional poems in journals since that first publication in New Irish Writing. Publication in David Marcus’s page in The Irish Press was a rite of passage for writers of my generation. It was a few years later before I had a second poem published— in the poetry journal, Cyphers, edited by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Macdara Woods and Leland Bardwell. Through the Grapevine Arts Centre, I heard of the establishment of Poetry Ireland by John. F. Deane in 1979, joined it at its inaugural meeting in the fustily atmospheric United Arts Club and bought the first copy of its journal, Poetry Ireland Review. Other poetry journals came and went and I got used to sending poems off, agonising endlessly over covering letters, and hoping that the returning scruffy envelope, with the address in my own handwriting, would be thin, signalling acceptance. I was only half-comforted by something I heard the Donegal poet, Madge Herron, say in a radio interview on the subject of young poets who came to her for advice ‘They have to write the bad poems out of themselves before they write the good poems’. Less painful was Ezra Pound’s observation that it takes as long to learn how to write a poem as it does to learn how to play a musical instrument.
Regional poetry journals are as useful to emerging poets as workshops, both in terms of airing the work and in putting writers in touch with each other. The Salmon, founded by Jessie Lendennie and her partner, Mike Allen, in 1981, and run from Auburn, their small house in the Claddagh, fulfilled this role wonderfully. A few years later they published Rita-Anne Higgins’s Goddess on the Mervue Bus and Eva Bourke’s Gonella. My first collection, Oar, which won the inaugural Brendan Behan Award, was either their third or fourth book. They took great care with the production and proofreading, the quality of the paper and the printing of the cover illustration, by the Roundstone potter, Rose O Toole.
After two years in Galway I had found myself teaching in a school for adolescent travellers, mostly boys. These children were dealing with the challenges of first generation literacy— challenges very possibly encountered, as my principal pointed out, by some of our own great-grandparents or their parents. This encounter with the last vestiges of a purely oral culture was a real privilege. It was also exhausting. At weekends I often opened Tim Robinson’s map of the Burren, picked out what looked like an interesting spot on it and hitch-hiked down to County Clare to tramp among pre-Christian holy wells, little medieval churches, megalithic tombs and grey-white valleys of limestone karst, what Tim described as ‘a uniquely tender and memorious ground’. Much of my first book came out of those walks in Clare— and out of the many inner conflicts of my life at that time. Galway was also a city full of traditional Irish music, with ‘more musicians than people’ as one young Clare musician put it. I was playing a little on the concertina, with my sister-in-law and friend, the harper, Kathleen Loughnane, and that seeped into my poems too.
In 1994, I applied for a career break to take up the offer of a Writer-in-Residence position at Trent University, Ontario— a very enriching experience. The faculty could not have been more welcoming. Among the people whom I got to know in Ontario was the brilliant short story writer, Alistair McLeod. On the day on which I received confirmation of the career break, the then director of Poetry Ireland, Theo Dorgan, rang to ask me to take on the editorship of Poetry Ireland Review for a year. I did so, working on it partly in Dublin and partly from Ontario. Editing proved to be a creative exercise in itself and gave me an overview of what was happening in poetry in Ireland. During my period of editorship there was the excitement of Seamus Heaney’s being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, an event which added, and continues to add, light and lustre to the world of Irish poetry. I was able to extend the Canadian residency with the help of a grant from the Irish Arts Council and to extend the career break to take up residencies in County Kerry, in Waterford City and Derry City. Much of my second collection ‘The Parchment Boat’, carefully edited and published by Gallery Press in 1997, reflected the experience of these residencies.
I returned to Galway and to teaching. One of the benefits of being an Irish poet writing in English is our visibility in America. US academia has long been a supporter and encourager of Irish writers, through awards, residencies and invitations to read at colleges and conferences. In 2000 I had a phone call from Tom Redshaw, from the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota, offering me the Lawrence O Shaughnessy Award. It was a wonderful affirmation at a time when I was not sure if my writing was going anywhere.
After a few years, however, between the demands of teaching and weekend trips to Donegal to visit my very elderly mother, I discovered it increasingly difficult to find either time or energy to write. As one friend put it ‘You don’t just need time to write, you need time around the time, to change mode’. So my election, in 2004, to Aosdana, the state-supported affiliation of Irish creative artists, came as a liberation. It made it possible for me to give up full-time teaching. I continued to teach a summer course in the National University of Galway and to give readings at home and abroad.
Thanks to ‘Literature Ireland’ (previously Irish Literature Exchange) I have had bilingual selections of poetry published in Spanish, Portuguese and German. Through my friend and translator, the Argentinian poet, Jorge Fondebrider, I have visited Latin America several times and, in 2015, through that fosterer of Irish-Japanese literary links, Mitsuko Ohno, I had the great pleasure of visiting the country which gave us Haiku.
The poetry publishing world has changed enormously since I began to write in the late 1970s. Thanks to the generation of Irish women writers immediately before mine, poetry by women is much more widely published in this country— although this is still not properly reflected in anthologies. Our two most recent Ireland Professors of Poetry have been Paula Meehan, Dublin city’s most eloquent voice since Sean O Casey, and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanain. I regard myself as extraordinarily lucky to have been born at such a shifting, exciting time in Irish literature and to have had the benefit of gifts of education, books, friends and literary communities all along the way.
It is strange that such a solitary, sedentary activity should have brought me to many corners of the world, to Neruda’s Santiago, to Basho’s Kyoto and to Machado’s Soria, and should have led to many rich friendships. But, as Theodore Roethke said, you only really feel like a poet in the five minutes after you have finished writing a poem.