I’m proud to announce my first ‘featured poet’: Jane Clarke. My hope is that, each month or so, I can share a new poet with you, as well as their thoughts on a poet they really admire. So, two for the price of one!
I feel I’m kicking off with something big here (you’ll know what I mean when you read Jane’s poem below). ‘The River’ is concise and heartfelt, with such a sense of pace that I felt it literally carried me along, like the river itself. It’s so clear and precise, yet it does what is so difficult to master – yes, it yeilds just that little bit more with every reading. What more could you wish for?
Jane’s biography, and her poem ‘The River’ appear below, followed by her comments on Michael Longley’s collection, A Hundred Doors.
Wicklow poet, JANE CLARKE, is widely published in poetry journals in Ireland and the UK. Twice shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Literary Award, she has won numerous prizes, including the 2014 Listowel Writers’ Week Poetry Collection and the 2014 Trocaire& Poetry Ireland Competition. Her debut collection will be published by Bloodaxe Books in June 2015.www.janeclarkepoetry.ie
What surprises me now is not that you’re gone
but how I go on without you, as if I’d lost
no more than a finger. My hand still strong,
perhaps stronger, can do what it must,
like carving your name on a branch from the beech
by the Suck, letting the river take you,
so I can call myself free. Only sometimes,
like yesterday or the day before, last night or this morning,
the river flows backwards, uphill to my door.
(first published in The Irish Independent 2012)
And a poet/ collection she admires …
A Hundred Doors by Michael Longley
I chose A Hundred Doors because I think Longley is one of our greatest living poets. I had come across his poems over many years but it was when I read his collected poems in 2008 that I fell in love with his work. ‘Ceasefire’ is one of my all time favourite poems, as is ‘The Horses’. I always have a slight fear with a new collection from a favourite poet that it will be disappointing. I bought A Hundred Doors in 2011, the year it was published, just before going to one of his readings. I was not disappointed.
These are poems of celebration and mourning; celebrating the arrival of his grandsons, remembering the arrival of his daughters and always aware that time is short. The collection is distinguished by the number of elegies, meditations on death and tributes to loved ones he has lost. The poems are beautifully wrought with the familiar Longley details of place, people and nature. I think there is a wonderful tenderness in the poems to his grandchildren. He is writing about subjects he has written about before but each poem feel fresh and necessary to me.
His poems celebrate life and love even when they also lament loss keenly. He is haunted by some themes, for example war and what war does to people, particularly his own father. I have heard him say that he is obsessed by the first world war and that he believes we are still recovering from it. Longley is a master of the short poem and there are a number of very short moving poems in this collection that say all that needs to be said. As always it is evident that the sound of each word and line is of supreme importance to him. I heard him say in an interview, ‘poetry is launched in the mouth and finds its resting place in the ear.’
A number of these poems are addressed to friends he has lost. They are both intimate elegaic in how they recall the prowess of the person who has died and lament their going. There’s the gorgeous tribute poem to Stanley Kunitz, describing a loving meeeting between two elders.
Cuddling up, we talk about
Flowers, important things,
And hold hands to celebrate
Spring gentian’s heavenly
(Strictly speaking), blue.
Longley seems to have no fear of revisiting material he has worked with before, e.g. the lists of wildflowers, the homeric references, the first world war. The way he names birds and flowers is sacramental. They are not just incidental detail, they are the keepers of mystery and life. Anyone who has read Longley will find themselves in a familiar place with language, form and theme but each poem is fresh as a new day.
To my mind the poems which represent Longley at his best in this collection are ‘The Leveret’, ‘Cloudberries’ and ‘The Lifeboat’. ‘Cloudberries’ is a love poem which for him is at the core of the poetic endeavour. He has written many beautiful love poems. But this is a love poem celebrating a long old love.
Cloudberries sweetened slowly by the cold
There is a delight in the last line:
Kisses at our age, cloudberry kisses.
I can hear his voice reading the‘The Lifeboat.’ I know Charlie Gaffney’s pub in Louisburgh and I can imagine them both there and the charity lifeboat box. This is one of the many loving tribute poems in this collection to friends he has lost. There is loving humour in the first two stanzas that glides into a terrible sense of loss in the last stanza.
My favourite poem in the collection is ‘The Leveret’, in which Longley welcomes his grandson to his first night in Carrigskeewaun, the townland in Co. Mayo where he and his family spend time every year. The poem is addressed directly to his grandson with love and warmth. The detail he uses brings us there too.
The Owennadornaun is so full of rain
You arrived in Paddy Morrison’s tractor.
He creates music with how words resound with other words: father’s arms and hearth, conceived and fire-seed, fluffy and mussel, reef and sea.
The world of ancient Greece is never far away in Longley and here he affectionately calls the baby, ‘little hoplight’, a citizen soldier armed with spear and shield. He goes on to say fondly and humourously, ‘I’ll park your chariot by the otters’ rock…’
He uses words that one would use with a child – bumpy, fluffy, pompoms without any hint of a patronising tone. Even the words hoplite and sootfall somehow seem very suited to this almost whispered address to a child.
His lines flow elegantly, with seemingly easy enjambment. I think that’s what amazes me most in his writing, how he makes it all seem so easy and natural. It is evident that form is very important to him but the form never calls attention to itself. The form carries the poem as the father carries the child but it is never a bumpy ride. Here he has chosen to write 25 lines of ten or eleven syllables in 11 sentences without stanza breaks.
This poem gives a sense of his delight to be introducing a new generation of his family to this beloved place. He tells the child all the wonders he will show him tomorrow.
There’s a tufted duck on David’s lake
With her sootfall of hatchlings, pompoms
A day old and already learning to dive.
By introducing the baby to this beloved place he is also reintroducing his readers to the place and its inhabitants that have inspired and nurtured so much of his poetry over many years. He seems to me to be telling the reader that this is what a baby needs; to be introduced to the wonders of the natural world with love, celebration and protection.
He has particularly chosen young animals and birds to show the baby but does not leave out the cruelty in nature’s ways, but says But don’t be afraid.
We are also in familiar Longley territory when he tells the child he has picked wild flowers for him and placed them
in a jam-jar of water
That will bend and magnify the daylight.
This is what Longley does with his poetry; he‘bends and magnifies’ the light.