A little over twenty years ago, a poem of mine, ‘Swallows’, was accepted for publication in Poetry Ireland Review. It was the first to have made it into that august journal. This was doubly sweet in that it had been written for my mother, an avid bird watcher who’d recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. A couple of months after she died, it went on to win the Ted McNulty award. Though I’d been writing uneven poetry pretty much all my life, ‘Swallows’ marks the first poem I’d still stand over out of those lost decades. Looking back from the perspective of three published collections, it seems to me a manifesto of kinds for the particular path my poetry would take.
Here is the opening stanza:
Scythe-wings slide from the low vaults, calling,
Fall through the line of sight, swing wide,
And, tight to the lawn, race their shadows.
Gracing an arc, a long drawn, mower’s sweep,
The lithe blades wheel and leap at once upwards, deep
Deep in the blue air.
There are, of course, echoes of those poets I’d always admired – Hughes, Heaney, Plath, with more than a dash perhaps of Hopkins’ ‘The Windhover’. How would it not be so? Poetry, like music, is always a confluence of influences.
Why does it now seem a manifesto? To be sure, in terms of subject matter and treatment, all three collections have poems which take as their point of departure family anxieties and concerns – my mother’s diagnosis, my sister’s cancer, my father’s dementia. All have nature poems which attempt to capture or mimic an element of what is being observed. But far more than a matter of theme or subject, my poems tend to put a premium on the aural qualities inherent in language. This is not merely a matter of onomatopoeia, of echoing the acoustics of the subject matter – a skill at which the early Heaney excels. It’s an attempt to awaken and mobilise what Eliot memorably terms ‘the auditory imagination.’ Read any poem by Sylvia Plath and its rhythm, along with the way she uses assonance and vowel-clusters to tie the poem together, is so distinctive as to give a characteristic Plath music. In ‘Swallows’, the broad ‘aw’ vowel (vault, fall, call, lawn) interrupts the thinner ‘ih’ vowel (scythe, slide, line, sight, wide, tight) before rising to a series of ‘ee’ sounds (sweep, wheel, leap, deep) in a manner which, to my imagination, follows the flight-path of the migratory summer visitor. The effect is mimetic but not onomatopoeic, though the psychotic shriek of the swallow might be suggested in the rapid, staccato Morse of thin ‘ih’ sounds.
This is not to undervalue onomatopoeia. A recent poem, ‘Light Rail’, contrasts the grating, jerky acoustic of a waking DART station with the intimate, interior flop of a dog’s paws before attempting to reproduce the iambic rhythm of the moving train:
Pre-dawn. Bray Station’s
screech and shunt. Morning
is a wet nose and snuffle,
four paws flopping to the floor
for the first excursion. Outside
the street is a neon stage-set –
the first slow train unspooling
its show-reel across a bridge
in a series of stills, the sitters
sleep-stunned and solitary
as anything from Hopper
to a sound-track of rattling iambs:
the track, the train; the track, the train;
the pulse of a city waking.
If the alliteration is dominated by a harsh sibilance: ‘sh’ ‘sc’ ‘st’ ‘sp’ ‘ss’; there’s a quieter assonance at work to hold the poem together and give it aural coherence (four/floor, street/neon, slow/show, series/stills/sitters, solitary/Hopper, track/rattle). This aspect, I think, is what Robert Frost had uppermost in mind when he defined poetry as that quality of language which is lost when one translates it. Unlike Frost, I rarely employ full rhyme, and tend to deplore translations where rhyme is imposed by the translator at the expense of accuracy, but subtle, internal rhyme is an essential component of any poet’s auditory imagination.
In the universe of the auditory, one sound can suggest a related sound so that a poem can come to operate musically as a riff on the fundamental. A number of my shorter poems operate on this principle. A recent poem, ‘Broighter Boat’, begins ‘Nestled between bowl and torc / and bright as a taper safely brought / down the long corridor of ages’; while here is the short poem ‘Cat’s Eye’ in its entirety:
City lights quiver like aspen leaves
in the slow liquorice river.
The wind has shivered a glass half-moon
into shimmering slivers,
into silver elver scribbling under where,
catlike, the Ha’penny Bridge
has over-arched its old arch-rival.
Yes, the poem culminates in a pun, that other aspect of a language that’s lost in translation. It’s only in the final two lines, which rise out of the Liffey’s waters so to speak along with the bridge itself, that we leave the restless acoustic variations on quiver; river; shiver; shimmer; sliver; silver; elver; scribbling.
Is the auditory imagination unique to poetry? The rhythms, assonance and alliteration so prominent in Ulysses or To the Lighthouse would suggest not. In addition to the three poetry collections, I’ve had four novels published, two short story collections, a couple of one-act dramas, even a radio play. In all of the above, the ear is final arbiter. But for me, to borrow from Yeats, poetry ‘comes dropping slow’. I’d never call myself a prolific poet. Months can pass without a single poem being written – or writing itself, as often seems to be the case. I can guilt myself into writing fiction or drama, sketching out scenes or allowing a voice free rein to start telling their story. That never works where poetry is concerned. A poem may or may not begin to happen. When it does, sounds accumulate even as images do. The process is a total mystery. What I would say is, a fifth or sixth draft of a poem will never become the final, definitive draft before the auditory imagination is given full rein and allowed to work its magic.
(c) David Butler
About Liffey Sequence:
Liffey Sequence explores pressing issues of identity, ecology and social exclusion. This new three-part collection by the award-winning Bray-based writer includes the title eleven-poem sequence, which examines themes such as dispossession, homelessness and drug abuse.
Order your copy online here.
Liffey Sequence (Doire Press), will be launched on Wednesday September 29th, 2021.