Interview with poet, critic and journalist Gerard Smyth
Hello Gerard and welcome to writing.ie. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. The first question I am always curious how poets first got into poetry.
Poetry had its first stirrings in my life in a number of ways. I was a pre-Soundings schoolboy of the 1960s so the poets I encountered were mostly the English Romantics, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Matthew Arnold; also Shelley, Byron, Tennyson, a fair dose of Milton, and of course Shakespeare whose work even now continues to reveal itself in new ways. Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard had some claim on my heart. Yeats dominated the Irish side of things but we were also served up the 1916 poets, as well as other figures – Mangan, whose connection to my own Dublin locality appealed to me, also Ferguson, whose Lament for the death of Thomas Davis, was I think one of the prescribed poems, Padraic Colum, James Stephens.
However, I think it was the soundscapes of Hopkins that particularly caught the attention of my ear, his way with words had a startling effect, it was exhilarating, of a different order to everyone else. Hopkins prepared me for Dylan Thomas who was certainly an influence on my own early efforts to the extent that one of the first critical comments on my apprentice poems picked out their technique as being “over indebted to that good poet but bad influence on young poets, Dylan Thomas”.
I was lucky to have an inspiring English teacher, Jack Hoey who simply radiated his love of language and made poetry “rise from the page”, as I described it years later in a poem in his memory. I remain deeply grateful to him for making me aware of the value of poetry; his English classes had me enthralled – alas not the case with other subjects, except perhaps history.
Outside of school my poetry nurseries were two wonderful local libraries, Kevin Street and Thomas Street, where I was particularly drawn to the work of Dylan Thomas, the plays as well as the poems. I recall borrowing Under Milk Wood several times and wanting someday to write something like it.
But both libraries also had a good stock of the Dolmen editions and that was an introduction to the local contemporary scene, Austin Clarke, Montague , Pearse Hutchinson, but also Thomas Kinsella, whose influence on me would later override that of the Welsh poet. Very particularly I have never forgotten the detonation I experienced on first reading Kinsella’s Dick King – a poem set in the actual locale where I first read it and that was the eye-opening and liberating moment when poetry announced itself as something to be found on my own streets. Kinsella was significant in showing me (long before I tuned into Kavanagh ) how a poet should be earthed to his own place. I didn’t know it at the time but it was also one of the first poems to instruct me in the importance of poetry’s function of memorialising – “one of the things that art is for”, as Kinsella himself has quite rightly said.
In Grafton Street in those years there was a bookstore called the Eblana, which had a corner space where poetry was stocked. I used to slip in there and read what I could and slipped out again as a non-purchaser. When Derek Mahon’s debut collection Night-Crossing appeared there it introduced a whole new dimension to my notions of what poetry could be.
I developed a short-lived infatuation with the Beat poets. But certainly one of the first poetry books that I bought was a Collected Dylan Thomas, that was in May 1969 – I still have it with the date inscribed. Also around the same time money from a part-time job went on a copy of Berryman’s His Toy, His Dream, His Rest.
Another factor, it has to be said, was the music that was in the air back then; the emergence of a generation of singer-songwriters whose lyrics aspired to the condition and gestures of poetry. All that prompted the urge to set down words in verse form and it was in 1968 that I made my own first attempts. I was 17 that summer and summers were usually spent away from Dublin with my grandmother in County Meath. A friend had given me a copy of the Penguin edition of the Liverpool poets and I had it with me. Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten. It was Patten’s voice – quiet, lyrical, passionate – that really appealed to me. That summer in Meath I wrote some verses that were, if nothing else, attempts at an imitation of Patten (possibly Kenneth Patchen too, who also come on to my radar).
Later that year, to my delight and astonishment, David Marcus, editor of the New Irish Writing page in The Irish Press, accepted five of them for publication and they appeared in the page in January 1969 – my first publication. To make it into New Irish Writing was regarded as some kind of achievement – especially when you see your work alongside a story by Elizabeth Bowen, which was quite a boost. Shortly after that James Simmons took a poem called Slowdance for The Honest Ulsterman. I had little sense that this was the beginning of a life in poetry – though I am hard put to see the merit in those early attempts now after a lifetime of reading and writing poetry and even in workshops daring to instruct others in what makes a good poem.
Meeting Michael Smith of New Writers’ Press was, I think, a key moment. Though meeting may not be quite the way to describe it – I simply landed on his doorstep one evening, a stranger wanting to meet the poet of the neighbourhood. I had come across some of the early NWP books in the local library – his own With the Woodnymphs, Trevor Joyce’s Sole Glum Trek, and the debut collection of Durcan and Brian Lynch, Endsville. What really came as a surprise was that there was a tree with poetry blossoming on its branches in my own backyard, so to speak. The press was located only a stone’s throw from where I lived in Francis Street.
Emboldened by my own appearance in print I made my way to Warrenmount to call on Michael and introduce myself and that started both a mentoring process that led to publication of my first collections, as well as a life-long friendship and a lifelong admiration for Michael’s own poetry and work as a translator. That was in January 1969 after my appearance in New Irish Writing.
Mike generously shared his own library and became my pathfinder, guiding me in the direction of numerous poets who were to become instructive in my understanding of the creative potential that poetry offered. Many of these poets were in translation from European languages. He was adamant about the importance of looking beyond the Irish, European and American traditions. He loaned me a copy of an anthology called Modern European Poetry which I carried around like a book of revelation. It opened a whole new world – Rilke, Quasimodo, Pasternak, Montale, Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, French surrealists, German expressionists and of course his own beloved Spanish poets – Lorca, Vallejo, Paz, Neruda, Machado –the last of whom was the one whose quiet qualities greatly appealed to me. I was also attracted to the rather melancholy world of Georg Trakl, his dark but beautiful and enigmatic lyrics.
I continued writing and Mike became my first reader – a man of often austere judgments but always encouraging and, looking back, I have to admit to being stubborn in the face of his critiques and suggestions and wish I had followed some of his directions at the time. I did later. In essence the point he kept making was that the richness of poetry was to be found in the everyday. I think I foolishly started out with some notion that poetry could only be created from the elevated themes and subjects, an idea that probably had its origination in the school classroom.
I generally hung out at New Writers’ Press – and helped to hand-set a few of the publications: there was an edition of Borges, Michael Hartnett’s The Hag of Beare, a Jack Spicer book. There was of course a social and drinking side to it to – and it was in that milieu that I first met other poets: Hartnett, James Liddy, Brian Lynch, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain and Macdara Woods. Durcan too and, on one occasion in the house in Warrenmount Place, Austin Clarke – then a quite venerable figure in Irish poetry and I was dumbstruck in the great presence. Liddy introduced me to McDaids which was then still Dublin’s literary watering hole, but I had just missed the Kavanagh era, though the legends were being handed on and something of the aura hadn’t quite gone to the grave with him but was hanging around Grafton street.
It was around this time, too, that Mike and Trevor Joyce launched The Lace Curtain which over only a few issues published most of the mainstream poets of the time as well as championing a revival of the reputations of the Thirties poets, particularly Brian Coffey and Thomas MacGreevy, the latter has always fascinated me and I just wish there had been more poems.
So it was a further boost to have work appear in the journal – though they were not poems I would care to have presented back to me today. In December of 1969 the press brought out my first small collection, The Flags are Quiet. It’s appearance in the window of the Eblana Bookshop, which I mentioned earlier, was akin to a rite-of-passage moment.
I think most recent poets in Ireland don’t have much of a clue about how the poetry community worked when you were starting out. Was there an Arts Council or Poetry Ireland at the time? What else was around?
Yes, the Arts Council was in existence but not Poetry Ireland which came much later when John F Deane, who was also an encouraging and generous contributor to my development, set it up. The council, much different and leaner to what we have today, was supportive of poetry publishing. The main publisher of Irish poetry then was Liam Miller’s Dolmen Press, bringing out work by the likes of Kinsella and Montague, Liddy and Hutchinson and most importantly revitalising the career of Austin Clarke.
Around the time my first small chapbook appeared from New Writers’ Press I was introduced to the author Mervyn Wall who was AC director. For young poets back then – and short story writers too – having work accepted by David Marcus for his New Irish Writing page of the Irish Press newspaper signalled a particular moment of sanction. This was the case for many of my own contemporaries. All of us, and I could name several, owe him much gratitude not just for bringing the work to a public audience but for the good counsel he provided in correspondence. David continued to publish my poems into the 1980s, though he correctly sent back more than a few rejections – always with good advice about the flaws and failures he saw in the work as it progressed.
There were magazines around, Poetry Ireland Review in one of its earlier incarnations, The Dublin Magazine and the Kilkenny Magazine. The Honest Ulsterman had started in the North and its then editor James Simmons was, as I said earlier, the second editor to accept a poem of mine. That too was in 1969. St Stephens was coming out in UCD – and although it may have seemed like a student magazine I still have my contributor’s copy that also carried work by Desmond Hogan, Gerard Fanning, Richard Ryan, John Boland.
Another distinctive, you could even say iconoclastic, addition to the magazine scene around the same time was Peter Fallon’s Capella, all it editions with terrific graphic art covers by the artist Jim Fitzgerald. As well as local poets Peter was looking outside of Ireland and issues had the likes of the Liverpool poets, Ginsberg, Michael Horovitz, Barry MacSweeney, a significant and influential English poet of the time, the Greek poet Radnotti and in one issue the lyrics of the singer Al Stewart. Brian Patten was a poet I particularly admired, and still do, and it was a particular delight to find myself positioned alongside him in the pages of Capella. As well as heralding a new energy in poetry that magazine was the first stepping stone on Peter’s way to creating Gallery Press.
My first reading was in the upstairs lounge of Sinnots pub in South King Street – not the one there now but its predecessor. Regular readings were run by the poets Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Pearse Hutchinson, Macdara Woods and Leland Bardwell – the four of whom went on to establish Cyphers in 1975 – thankfully it has been consistent all the years since and that journal has survived and continues to appear thanks to the dedication of its editors. Those Sinnots readings were another rite-of-passage for a young poet.
Do you review poetry or have you? Poetry is still a small world, and was even smaller at the time you have been talking about.
Yes, occasionally I will review a volume but, to be honest, won’t now take on a review it unless I am enthusiastic about the work, and can be positive about it or feel some affinity with the poet or, as in some cases, believe the work of a certain writer has been neglected or fallen under the radar.
Many years ago, in the late 1970s and into early 1980s, I acted as a kind of regular poetry critic for The Irish Times. I have always been grateful to the then literary editor Brian Fallon for his faith in me as a reviewer and for giving me the opportunity to try out my critical responses to work. I remember years later having a conversation with the late, much-missed Dennis O’Driscoll about those reviews and telling him how much I regretted things I said in some of them, responding as I did then with the arrogance and know-it-all of youth – something I detect and dislike about some younger critics now.
In just such a state of opinionated self-regard I made some dismissive comment or other about a very senior and respected poet that elicited from the then editor of the Irish Times Douglas Gageby the comment Wait till he gets his hands on your next book. And in an extraordinary twist the same poet did get my next book to review for another publication but gave it the kind of review any young poet would wish for. He also gave me a lesson in the generosity of spirit that reviewing requires. That of course also illustrates how we operate in a very small pool, with poets reviewing poet-friends. Though this seems to be far more endemic in fiction circles these days.
Of course a review has to be honest and in the cause of novice poets, helpful to the poet who may or may not welcome critical comment. Certain allowance has to be made for the marks of a beginner, though a good critic will know instinctively whether the beginner has what it takes to keep going. But there is nothing dishonourable about bringing some sensitivity to what has to be said, and especially how it is said. Of course any review will carry the attitudes of the reviewer, that is unavoidable – that is fine, a review with an agenda is another matter.
Which writers do you think have been neglected? Why do you think that happens?
Every generation produces its share of forgotten and neglected writers. And of course some simply go out of fashion. In a survey of neglected writers many years ago I nominated Denis Devlin as a much neglected writer who deserved a restoration of his literary reputation. Now, the figure from that Thirties generation for whose work I have the highest regard – and there is only a very small corpus of it – is Thomas MacGreevy, an odd maverick figure in poetry. His work does turn up in the odd anthology but overall he is kept very much in the backroom of poetry, like his fellow “modernists” of that period.
When I was rereading poets for the anthology of Dublin poems I co-edited with Pat Boran, it struck me that the work of Austin Clarke probably does not receive the esteem it deserves. Although he has been on school curricula and championed by perceptive critics such as Maurice Harmon and Christopher Ricks, I sense he is possibly now viewed as being outdated, to which I say au contraire – long before the hidden Ireland of the time was exposed Clarke was speaking out in his poems and satires about the cruelties in schools and orphanages, the abuses of clerical authority, the moral issues of Catholic conscience, the plight of unmarried mothers, the issue of priestly celibacy, the bigotries of the devout, and the censorship laws.
Clarke’s magnificent burst of late creativity was astonishing, what we all wish for perhaps – his poems of indignation and rage at the political and social failures of a state that disappointed him made him our greatest satirist after Swift. His Mnemosyne Lay in Dust as well as its distinction as a magnificent meditation on a personal breakdown also holds a place as an important social document, a journey into the heart of darkness of the Ireland of that period of history. Apart from that he is, for me, an essential Dublin poet, the father of those of us who have taken up the city as a theme in our work.
Two woman writers Rhoda Coghill and Sheila Wingfield (Viscountess Powerscourt) were rarities in the male-dominated world of Irish poetry in the 30s, 40s and 50s – with Wingfield in particular attracting the praise of critics and successfully sustaining a publishing career. Her first collection appeared in 1938 and in the 70s and 80s the Dolmen Press continued to publish her. Often informed by her classical readings, her poems had the mark of a striking originality and in the best of them she achieved an economy of crystalline language. As well as a command of the condensed lyric, she achieved mastery of the longer form in Beat Drum, Beat Heart, praised by Sir Herbert Read as “the most sustained meditation on war written in our time”.
Yet the recognition they both deserved never quite came their way. While Wingfield’s poetry was reissued a few years ago her life was revisited in an RTE documentary, Coghill completely disappeared off the poetry radar as far as I could ascertain when scouting around for work to include in the anthology. There are others – Eugene Watters (who also wrote under the name Eoghan O Tuairisc ) who at least should be known for the brilliantly constructed narrative poem The Weekend of Dermot and Grace; Padraic Fallon, F R Higgins, the great Cork and Belfast mavericks Patrick Galvin and Padraic Fiacc, each of them now under-appreciated because they are considered to be out of rhyme with current fashions; the list could go on.
Sadly I think two of my contemporaries, Sean Dunne and Michael Hartnett, both of whom died far too early, were underrated in their lifetimes and remain so today. Both of them were rare in that from the off they were surefooted in the craft and landed fully formed, not much in the way of apprentice work.
I think I have to conclude with this quote from W S Merwin’s poem recalling advice he received from John Berryman.
I asked how can you be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write.
(from “Berryman” by W S Merwin )
Gerard Smyth is poet, critic and journalist. He has published eight collections of poetry, including, A Song of Elsewhere ( Dedalus Press 2015), and The Fullness of Time: New and Selected Poems ( Dedalus Press, 2010 ). A sequence of poems in response to 1916, After Easter, with a drawing by artist Brian Maguire, was published in a limited edition by The Salvage Press in 2016. A new collection, The Yellow River, with a series of paintings and drawings by Sean McSweeney, will be published by Solstice Arts Centre, Navan, in 2017 in conjunction with an exhibition of the work of poet and artist in the centre. He was the 2012 recipient of the O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award presented by the University of St Thomas in Minnesota and is co-editor, with Pat Boran, of If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song ( Dedalus Press ) which was Dublin’s One City One Book in 2013. He is a member of Aosdána and Poetry Editor of The Irish Times.
KATE DEMPSEY runs writing.ie's Poetic License blog and is our poetry guru. She is a writer and a blogger living in Maynooth. She writes fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry and is widely published in Ireland and abroad, in magazines, anthologies and on the radio. She fits this around her family and a full time job, writing on the sofa, on the train and in that little coffeeshop on the corner.
Poetry can be a solitary activity and she appreciates the support she received from the online community, particularly when starting out. She is excited about continuing the dialogue with her blog here.