Poet in Profile: Paul Durcan

Pictured: Poet Paul Durcan.

Pictured: Poet Paul Durcan.

Paul Durcan is a name that will need no introduction for lovers of poetry. Referred to recently by Irish Central Online as ‘Ireland’s unofficial Poet Laureate’, Paul has a level of international recognition which is bestowed on only a few poets of a given generation.

He is author of over 22 books, including The Berlin Wall Café (a Poetry Book Society Choice in 1985) and Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being (2012) to name but two.

His newest collection, released in March this year is The Days of Surprise, published by Harvill Secker. It is a collection of 67 poems – culled from a much larger number – which Paul worked on for the last three to four years.

Paul was gracious enough to give NewsFour some time for a conversation about the new book and in particular its unique relationship to the four villages at the heart of Dublin 4.

Paul has been a resident of Ringsend for 30 years and has watched the changes the decades have brought with an eye for the resonant detail. Indeed, the title poem of the collection The Days of Surprise begins in St Patrick’s Church, Ringsend, on the morning after the election of Pope Francis. The poem contrasts the reverent silence of the interior of the church with the village, which “swirls / And swarms like the hundreds of brent geese / Jinking overhead and the seagulls swooping / Like in a painting by a child or Mark Joyce / Or Gerard Dillon or Giotto or Fra Angelico / Or Ian Fairweather or Nicolas de Stael or Tony O’Malley.” It goes on to detail the features of the village as it will be familiar to all, from the Bridge Café to Ladbrokes on the corner and the library “with its Chinese granite benches.”

“The poem is a depiction of the village as it was at that specific time. It is very much me attempting to draw a picture of Ringsend at the time of the election.”

Paul talks about the four villages that run along the edge of Dublin Bay and how he has seen them change over time. “For me, the great changes here, in my lifetime, start with the Samuel Beckett Bridge and finish with the Great Wall and the four villages. I have been fortunate enough to live and work in Rio for a period and I think Dublin Bay compares with it beautifully. The upper classes of the ‘Strumpet City’ era of Dublin used to say that it compared favourably with Naples.”

He expresses a particular love for Sandymount: “If you were looking for a particularly beautiful village green, a village green being something ordinarily associated with England, you couldn’t do better than Sandymount Green. I think it is one of the most beautiful places in Ireland. I must have spent hundreds of hours just sitting there.”

Talk of Sandymount naturally leads to a discussion of the late Seamus Heaney, with whom Paul shared a fond friendship. A poem from the new collection Breaking News addresses Paul’s chance discovery of the great poet’s death: “I’d prefer to let that poem speak for itself.” The last half of the poem is in his voice and ends “And now I put the key for the first time / Into the door of my father’s house.”

I ask if he was satisfied with the poem. “I wouldn’t say satisfied but I felt, yes, that is about right, once I had written it.”

Our Lady of Westport
after Patrick Pye
Mary the Mother of Jesus –
The most elegant woman in Westport.
Behold her striding around the foothills of the Reek,
Aughagower, Old Head, Boheh, Drummin, Murrisk –
A sight for sore eyes.
In her bottle-green cowled habit, her white scarf,
Her bare feet,
She hangs out on the corner of the Mall
With her little man in the palm of her hand,
As ebullient a wee covey in his coral-pink judo-strip
As ever kicked a ball for the County of Mayo.
They say she’s from Syria or Israel or Lebanon or
Palestine or
One of them places and that she gave birth to him
In a hay barn on a small farm out beyond Louisburgh
or some place.
Tell you something for nothing:
That woman would make you want to be human –
Our Lady of Westport.

In discussing The W B Yeats Shopping Centre, from the first part of the collection, the conversation again dovetails back to Seamus Heaney, as Paul describes the importance of Mrs George Yeats in her husband’s later life and career. “I think she was a most extraordinary woman and don’t think she stands in people’s minds as much as she deserves. I would hesitate to compare Yeats and Heaney; I would not want to detract from Heaney’s own individual mastery. Both got very high on the mountain but neither would have gotten as high without their wives,” he explains, with respectful deference to Heaney’s widow Marie Devlin.

He hesitates, I notice, to utter the traditional line about every great man having a great woman behind him, and I ask if this is because he has a special distaste for clichés. “Oh yes. There is a moment in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets – he incorporates the French poet Mallarmé, in that skilful way Eliot had. The line is ‘To purify the dialect of the Tribe’. Every poet, I feel, has to be trying to do that, whether they succeed or not.”

This in its turn leads us to discuss 1916 Not to Be Commemorated from the collection: “There is a line from the man who is speaking – ‘the people have no right to speak /Other than in celebrity cliché, media jargon, /smart-speak, /That all forms of humane speech are to be outlawed /In the light of the disgustingly visionary utterances /Of the poets Pearse, MacDonagh and Plunkett’.”

The poem is wryly satiric, angry and timely, given the approach of 2016. It strikes a sharp, funny note in a collection that covers a broad spectrum of emotions and subject matter.

The Man of Advancing Years and the Girl on a Bicycle
A man of advancing years, about ten years younger
than myself,
Is turning right at the lights in his two-door,
metallic-silver Ford Fiesta –
“Making a right”, as they drawl stateside –
From Grand Canal Street into Clanwilliam Place,
While a cyclist is taking her time on her pedals
Being young, carefree, nonchalant, emiting femininity.
In frustration, at first he brandishes his right arm
But concurrently, in a tantrum, he clenches his veiny,
mottled fist,
Glaring over at me at my wheel for male moral support:
“No siree!” – I smile – “No siree!”
Did you not learn at your potted, privileged, exclusive,
Fee-paying, Holy Ghost boarding school long ago
That the girl on a bicycle always takes precedence?
Always the not-yet pregnant Mother of God?

The Days of Surprise is available from Books on the Green and all good bookshops.

By Rúairí Conneely