Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
LIDIA VIANU -- BERNARD O'DONOGHUE
I am rather against ‘confessional poetry’
Interview with BERNARD O’DONOGHUE (born 1945), British academic and poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: One of the features of what I call Desperado poetry is displacement. You were born in Cork, and now teach medieval literature at Oxford. Your poems teem with characters from your childhood space and time. Your poems come not only from another time, but also from another place. You do not complain about the new place that has become your own, but cannot help dreaming. Poetry is a release of dreams, for you. An almost subconscious return to the roots of your imagination. How do you combine this rememoration with the fragile courage of instilling your present emotions into your poems? Do you consider yourself a poet of the present or maybe of the past?
Displacement. This is very interesting and astute, I think. As one of your later
questions suggests, I think I see myself as a writer of the present. Everyone
always is; a well-known and cherished past place (‘rooted in one dear perpetual
place’, Yeats says) is only one metaphorical language for talking about the
present. Everything we say is received in its present context, isn’t it? Another
formula for it is Tom Paulin’s ‘theoretical locations’. Again, I think poems
about sensitive or private subjects are just as revealing and embarrassing when
set in the past or the present. I don’t feel displaced at all in fact. I think
we just are where we are at any given time, and interest in the past is interest
in how we got there! I am of course deeply attached to Ireland. It is the place
I know best. I think we always understand best the rules of the places we grew
up in, like a native language. But of course it may be that those rules have
changed there in a way that makes that place more different from what it was
than other places are. I am not saying that is the case with my native
countryside in North Cork particularly.
LV. The titles of your three volumes of poetry – The Weakness (1991), Gunpowder (1995), Here Nor There (1999) – announce a kind of science fiction exit from reality. You start with the weakness of the mind and transitoriness of the body, go on with the blow up of familiar surroundings, and reach the point where your place is neither Here Nor There. Actually, in your poetry, you fight your own sensibility, summoning it to yield to language, which finally does happen, in the reader’s soul. Your poetic gift very accurately aims at the reader’s response and surreptitiously imprints your own seal on it. Desperadoes reject reality, complain then of displacement, and end in dystopia. Your dystopic realm is the loss of your Irish world. In other words, you are only dystopic insofar as you haunt the reader with the pain of loss, the loss of reality. What is your mood when you write? Do you trust poetry to work as a catharsis for your sadness at a lost world, or, on the contrary, do you use poetry to state your optimistic belief in the recreation of the past?
I am not sure how much this paragraph bears on me, but I think it is very
brilliant! I think The Weakness IS about what you say (fragility of life,
etc.), but I think Gunpowder – in so far as it has a single meaning – is
saying that the unfamiliar things that we reject sweepingly may not be so
threatening: just unfamiliar. I remember being very pleased when I came up with
the title Here Nor There (from the last line of ‘Westering Home’) because
I thought if ‘neither here not there’ means ‘insignificant’ (as it does
idiomatically), then removing the negative ‘neither’ from the front should mean
it now means ‘significant’. It’s a kind of pleasing sophistry; but the rather
clichéd idea was that being between states or moods or places or times is our
normal condition. Again, I don’t feel especially displaced myself, except – as
you say – by loss, precisely. The idea of a science fiction escape from reality
is very intriguing. It’s probably true. It’s probably a gradual withdrawal from
the functioning body and personality! Scary...
BO. You are
quite right about this. I am rather against ‘confessional poetry’ as it is
called, which seems to me to lack modesty by focusing on the events of one’s own
life as if that is what is significant. My first (small) volume of poetry was in
1984, a pamphlet published in Oxford by my friend John Fuller on his Sycamore
Press. But I was 38 then. In fact I only started writing poems in any concerted
sort of way after the death of my mother in 1979 (which followed very shortly
after the birth of my first child). I think those changes of state were
consciously very influential on me. My mother died of cancer, very painfully for
her and my two sisters and me. But I think also I felt released into a kind of
honesty and openness by the death of parents. Maybe I felt it constituted an
event of significance that it IS admissible to be confessional about – to talk
about it without claiming undue self-importance.
BO. Yeats is
the modern poet – predictably – that I spend most time with and know most of by
heart. I admire the modernists, especially their note of rather self-indulgent
desperation (I see: that’s Desperado, isn’t it?) But you are right: I do see it
through an ironic veil, though I do admire their capacity to take things
seriously. And you’re right again: there is very little hell in my poems. They
are mostly small-scale moral stories.
LV. Each of your evocative poems is a small story. It is a stream of consciousness device to mix literary genres (hybridization). You mix poetry, fiction and drama, and I should add to all that literary history and literary criticism, which seem to be always at the back of your mind. You do not narrate openly, but the poem curls around a fictional kernel, and often ends like a fable. Do you also write fiction? Is the narrative important to your meaning? Could you write poems that are mere lyrical rhetoric?
BO. That’s a
very good question. Ideally I would like to write short stories but I can’t
write prose somehow. I come from a part of Ireland (Cork) which has been a great
centre of the short story: Frank O’Connor, O Faolain, Corkery, William Trevor.
Some of my poems started out as prose short stories and then turned into poems
(if that is what they are). And yes, you are right, I am consciously aware of
hybridization. In fact I think I am dimly aware that these poems are working
against a short story as a form more natural to them. Maybe that goes with a
heteroglossic tendency that plays with accent and so on. I think I have written
the odd piece of lyrical rhetoric (‘The Sugawn Road’ for instance), but even
there the atmospherics are always very rooted in place. I have written (mostly
in my early days: i.e. my early 30s!) some horribly overwritten rhetoric; for
example the poem called ‘Holy Island’ (which has a wonderful medieval epigraph
from the scholar Beryl Smalley). Pity the poem doesn’t live up to the epigraph!
LV. Your poems rely heavily upon atmosphere. The State of the Nation is a remarkable rendering of a deserted gipsy camp. You make it sound like a dream, caused by the evening’s reading. The dream comes up in many other poems. Your three volumes all have a halo of dreaminess. A Desperado poet is quite pragmatic, from what I have seen so far. In this respect, you are the total opposite, you are a mist that vanishes when scrutinized, and thrives on unquestioning communion. Is writing a laborious process for you? Do you work hard to fit every word in place, or do you listen to the call of imagination only? Is versification important to you? I have noticed a definite rhythm, but not much interest in tricky rhymes. Your simplicity of line is far more efficient than the fireworks of more technical poets. Do you have a theory of your own on what poetry should be?
BO. This may
link to the previous question. I think I have got some sense of what poetry
should do nowadays. I am very keen on the observation by the great critic F.R.
Leavis, that we must give evidence that we have lived in our own time. I think
poetry must sound natural to its own age and place. So I think the poetic line
(which must have, in some sense, its own rhythm: otherwise it’s not poetry) must
have a scansion and shape which loosely but traceably underlies the utterance
that appears on the poem’s surface, while at the same time being of its time.
This sounds vague, but I find it dictates quite strictly what I do and don’t
write – which I find surprising.
LV. In The Must-Beloved (which meaningfully replaces most with must in a post-Joycean impulse, possibly), you talk about ‘the blast from the past’, which seems to me to be a wonderful definition of what you yourself are doing. The Absent Signifier describes the subconscious reasons for taking a photo, the need to prove you ‘have been there.’ All your poems are proofs of existence. They are memories, but relate to the present. I have this – possibly very wrong – certainty that this past you keep conjuring up is your way of expressing the present. You are much more than a dreamy poet, you are a dynamic observer of your contemporary world, which you fit in the wooden sabots of medieval literature. Do you write with your sensibility (this would be my guess) or with your knowledge about the Middle Ages, your sadness about the irretrievable past?
BO. Again, you
have anticipated me! The proofs of existence are the Leavisite evidence for
living in our time I suppose. I used to have a conscious fear of having lived to
no purpose. But I don’t feel that any more: three children, books and so on. I
suppose I think my achievements, limited as they are, are more than my talents
BO. I think,
quite honestly, that I have a weak intellect. I was very good at elementary
mathematics but I have little conceptual power and a terrible memory (except for
anecdotes and useless moments from the past – useful for small poems of
course!). I don’t think my sensibility is tragic either; it is a bit melancholy.
Doleful maybe, to use an archaic word! I feel comfortable discussing death. The
Irish countryside (maybe all countrysides) are very good at that particular
rite de passage. The English are terrible at it: they are terrified of it
and retreat into pious sentimentality and rhetorical moaning. They are right of
course; death is a very bad thing. But religious societies, or societies in
which religion is still an active memory, are much better. ‘The Fool in the
Graveyard’ is about the insane thrill that bad news gives, just momentarily,
even if it’s your own bad news. At least something is happening. It’s
another proof of existence.
LV. Have the Good Word is your self-description as a poet: ‘Those modern gods, the concentration/ Camp authorities, when they had stripped/ You of your clothes, would ask if you/ Had some saving skill which might outweigh/ In value the lead fillings in your teeth:/ If you could sew, or type, or translate/ From one useful language to another.// What I could offer them is the ability/ to tell people what they want to hear:/ That they will win the war, or that/ Their names will go down in history/ With honour; or that, after their deaths,/ Mourners will kneel at their neat suburban graves,/ Leaving bouquets and plastic immortelles.’ It is the second time you mention concentration camps. It is also one of the many times you envisage a graveyard in your mind. Some Desperadoes are tough, aggressive sensibilities, ready to fight and eager to displease. You want to tell people what they want to hear, you say. Your poems are all considerate and very proper (unlike the four-letter word abundance in American poetry, even British, at times). You do shock your readers, like any Desperado, but you do it in an insinuating way: you tell us what we want to hear, and you imply what we might hate, which is this ashy taste of death. What do you think of your more peevish fellow poets, who want to be different from everybody else at all costs? Do you want to be different, meaning to be your own trend? Or do you think you are related to some of your contemporaries? Who would those be? I think Desperadoes are only similar in their dissimilarity. Would you subscribe to a movement thus described?
BO. ‘Have the
good word’ is an Irish saying that seems to me to encapsulate a stark difference
between Irish and English mores. The rhetorical convention in Ireland is to
agree with the interlocutor if possible; in England it’s not. As a consequence
the English find the Irish duplicitous and the Irish find the English rude (to
overstate it). I think it is true that I aim to shock (as in ‘O’Regan the
Amateur Anatomist’) in polite and agreeable language. I think your questions at
this point are very astute. As for the contemporaries, in fact I admire people
who are able to be more outspoken than I am. I always think that, if I was asked
by one of those colour-supplement questionnaires what I don’t like about myself,
it would be a kind of lack of courage: cowardice even. One of my dearest
friends, and one of the literary figures I most admire, is the poet-critic Tom
Paulin (he and I are reading with Seamus Heaney in Oxford this Thursday: very
intimidating and outclassing) who has the gift of being loved while being
outspoken. That poem is I suppose about what service the weak can offer to the
strong. It is pretty political I think: quite outspoken after all!
BO. No, I
don’t know much about Romania (apart from loving its classical music and its
women poets, and the painter Grigorescu – oh yes, and its football team! It adds
up!) But I was very horrified by the casual international response to the deaths
of the Ceausescus. I am sure it was a necessary and important bid for freedom
within Romania, but it was greeted by a horrible complacency in the West.
‘Another Eastern dictator falls. Have another brandy.’ That poem is about the
West, not Romania. I have got into mild trouble with reviewers about sounding
off ignorantly about distant political issues, especially in relation to
Srebrenica in ‘Reassurance’, and I think they are right in a way. The problem is
I think that I am using distant events as moralities in the same way as I use
the Middle Ages or the Past. But I do think we have to express political views –
what Heaney calls ‘redressing’ – where we can do it without making things worse.
I think one of the most horrifying moments of my life was switching on the
television in 1991 and realising that the Americans really were bombing Baghdad.
LV. The Youngest in the Class begins with ‘modern Ireland’, and then remembers ‘When I changed nations.’ Do you really feel displaced? Are you at home in Oxford? It seems to me the change of places has been one of your spurs into poetry. It is my belief that a Desperado thrives on displacement. The germs of this rootlessness began with the stream of consciousness (Ezra Pound, Henry James, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats). The difference between the two is that the Desperado age takes displacement, like other modern revelations, for granted. A Desperado feels he must leave his first space (mental or geographical) and experience borderlessness. There is a need for universality in a Desperado which reminds us of the Renaissance spirit. Do you feel you could belong anywhere? Do you think of your poetry as intensely national and untranslatable (both in language and meaning)?
about Desperadoes, I think I do thrive on displacement, yes. But for an odd
reason that I wrote about in a poem called ‘The Migrant Workers’ a very long
time ago. I like feeling: ‘I am happy where I am; but I am glad that I don’t
feel entirely identified with it – that my centre of gravity is somewhere else.’
This hasn’t to do with England; to some extent I feel the same in Ireland now
(though I love the basic feeling of being there: native ground I suppose).
Doesn’t everyone like the rather luxurious feeling that they have something in
reserve? It is the definition of happiness I think; the opposite of being ‘at
the end of your tether.’ I hadn’t thought about this before you formulated the
last part of this question, but I quite like the feeling of being temporarily
lost. Though not linguistically: I don’t like being out of touch where I don’t
speak the language. That happened to me once briefly in Berlin. I didn’t mind
that much; but I once flew to the wrong Scottish airport without any immediate
way of retracing my steps, and I was surprised how unpanicked I was.
and fear; that is very interesting. You are right about humour; my favourite
writers are comic (Chaucer, Flann O’Brien, Waugh). Even writers who are mostly
admired for moral seriousness I find most effective when they are funny: Joyce
and Beckett, who are pretty well my favourite writers of all (with Chaucer). I
suppose I haven’t experienced that much criticism. I am always very pleased when
people have read things closely. ‘Dogs, would you live for ever?’ which I find
painful of course (and would never read for example) was read with extraordinary
insight by Ruth Padel in the Sunday Independent which I was very grateful
but a bit unnerved by. A critic I admired, Bill Scammell, died recently. He
salvaged all my books, and said about Gunpowder that it was a bit of a
waste of time but ‘contained one unquestionable success, ‘The Iron Age Boat at
Caumatruish’ which I thought was better than just saying ‘Okay I suppose’ to the
whole thing. A lot of my poems came through a poetry society called the Florio
Society, run by John Fuller at Magdalen College here where I worked. The best
critics I have ever come across were the close readers who analysed seriously
there. I think a lot of the best critics do not want to be poets themselves
(like Nicholas Jenkins of The Auden Review for example). It is difficult
in criticism to find the balance between being open-minded and being dull. The
critic needs a point of view; but it shouldn’t make them hostile to their text.
It does of course, inevitably. I grew up in an age (the 1960s) when criticism
was much more highly regarded among students of literature than ‘creative
writing’ which was thought pretentious. I think that was healthy. I still hate
people who call themselves poets. They don’t introduce themselves as drivers
because they can drive a car, do they?
LV. Going without Saying is a remarkable poem, which X-rays your sensibility: ‘It is a great pity we don’t know/ When the dead are going to die/ So that, over a last companionable/ Drink, we could tell them/ How much we liked them.// Happy the man who, dying, can/ Place his hand on his heart and say:/ ‘At least I didn’t neglect to tell/ The thrush how beautifully he sings.’ I have a feeling this sounds like a lesson to literary critics. Do you favour any particular critical approach? What kind of a critic are you? I have often wondered what the Desperado critic should look like, as most Desperado authors are terribly choosy and contemptuous of anyone who approaches their work. Would you agree that, first and last, criticism ought to be literature, too, and that, before any other goals, it should aim at being clear, at showing a way of reading , not dissecting the work with scholarly zest?
without Saying’ was a response to the death of a wonderful man who committed
suicide at 45. He was an industrial chemist, very successful professionally,
with a terrific wife and children. He left his wife (apparently: of course I
didn’t see it) a deeply consoling and admiring last letter. So it’s all very
private and context-bound. Insofar as that can be applied to criticism, I have
always thought it is quite a good maxim to be able to see what is good about
something before setting out to say what’s bad about it. I am putting this
very inaccurately – but Christopher Ricks said something like ‘There’s no good
Eliot and Leavis showing us why Milton is no good because anyone can see that he
IS good, so they must be starting from the wrong place.’ I think that is right.
Mind you, if writers are self-admiring and self-righteous, it may be difficult
to find anything good to say about them! But we should at least try. (There is
an academic joke about the referee who is desperately trying to write something
nice about a candidate for a job and says in a last paragraph, ‘Finally, his
wife is absolutely delightful’. So faint praise may be damnation of course.)
BO. I once had
a student (called Helen Mulley) who was a very good folksinger, and she once
introduced an Irish song (she was English) by saying ‘You don’t have to be Irish
to be homesick for Ireland’. I think that’s right: something about Ireland’s
culture and history leads to that emotion. Louis MacNeice is another in that
tradition, more surprisingly. I suppose that is universal, but there are
sentiments that seem particular to one country or another, aren’t there? Italy
is romantic for instance; France has style: that kind of thing. Someone said
that nostalgia is not properly an emotion at all; it is a learned response. What
MacNeice said was : ‘If only one could live in Ireland or feel oneself in
England’. I don’t feel that of course; I am very happy in Ireland. But it is an
astute way of putting it. England is a comfortable, supportive place to live,
with this great weight of history behind it. You feel in England ‘For good or
ill, this is what living means’. It is not marginal.
BO. I think that is a staggeringly attentive summary of the things I go on with. As I have said above I am very grateful for your attentiveness. I am very intrigued by the category because (as I said before) I think the English connotations of Desperado are not at all how I see myself – it implies something more wild and dashing than me! But I do think your deconstructing the three titles ingenious and persuasive (there was a previous book that fits even better, called Poaching Rights: i.e. the idea of poachers having rights as much as fishermen have, as in the phrase ‘fishing rights’; I suppose it is claiming the right to be transgressive in some way, like Judas as the patron of outsiders in ‘The Potter’s Field’). I wonder what the genre might be called? Is it a kind of parody memoir, like ‘My Childhood’? Very interesting.
March 27, 2001