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Best of Irish Poetry 2010
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Billy Ramsell was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1977 and educated at the North Monastery and UCC. Complicated Pleasures, his debut collection, was published by the Dedalus Press, Dublin, in 2007. He has been shortlisted for a Strong Award and a Hennessy Award. He lives in Cork, where he co-runs an educational publishing company.
Life is a Dream: 40 Years Reading Poems 1967 – 2007
(Harvill Secker 2009)
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Paul Durcan has probably written, or at least published, too much. The past forty years have seen twenty individual collections of his verse, many of them featuring seventy, eighty, or even over a hundred poems. His poetry pen gushes rather than trickles. Yet such Stakhanovite levels of output inevitably strain the quality control department or even leave it outside the production process altogether. In the introduction to the present volume Durcan tacitly admits as much, declaring that 'I have regarded the publication of each volume of my verse as being akin to an exhibition. I no more imagined that each poem was of equal value, much less worthy of preservation, than an artist would look upon every artwork as being of equal value and worthy of preservation'.
Life is a Dream, then, is one of those books that falls somewhere between a Collected and a Selected. It is Durcan's equivalent of an artist’s major retrospective and a perhaps semiconscious retort to those critics who have called him on his over-production. In it he provides generous selections from each of his volumes while filtering out those works he presumably considers 'less worthy of preservation'. This is Durcan putting his best foot forward, presenting himself as he would like to be remembered.
His beautifully-presented 586 page retrospective centres on two parallel arcs; a kind of narrative dual-carriageway that takes us simultaneously through forty years of the poet’s never-less-than-interesting life and of his country’s troubled history. We trace Durcan’s personal development from the late 70’s, when he was a Cork-based satiric prophet railing against injustice and hypocrisy, through the travels, loves and disappointments of his middle years to the eventual consolations of grand-fatherhood, the latter documented movingly if a touch cheesily in The Art of Life. Along the way we touch upon his obviously difficult childhood, especially in Daddy, Daddy, his Whitbread winning collection of 1990.
Yet Life is a Dream is also a bitter and zany biography of Ireland’s past four decades. Durcan takes us from through the darkest, earliest episodes of the troubles with waitresses ‘exploding in breasts and limbs’, to the seemingly endless disappointments and stagnation of the eighties, which finds the poet turning away in what seems like disgust to Central Europe, Russia and beyond. There is barely a chance to savour the brief uplift of ‘The Mary Robinson Years’ before we find ourselves ensaddled, for better and for worse, on the back of the Celtic Tiger. Durcan watches it all, condemning, carping and cajoling, his satire a bracing if astringent cocktail of rage, hope and pity. With added rage.
Durcan is that rarest of things; a truly popular poet. He may in fact be the only living Irish poet who is genuinely widely read as opposed to merely widely purchased, talked about and listened to. This is no small part due to his public reading style. In his introduction Durcan acknowledges having given 'perhaps thousands' of poetry readings over the past forty years. Those who've been lucky enough to attend one will know his publicists are only slightly exaggerating when they describe him as an 'electrifying' performer. (In fact there are two poems in the present volume that deal wittily and wickedly with the vexed art of reading poetry in public to small or non-existent audiences).
Durcan is also the perfect poetic radio or television interviewee, mingling seriousness and sensitivity with wry and often self-deprecating banter; a tortured artist who's quick with a quip or an unlikely but enlightening sporting analogy. His fame no doubt received a further boost from his wildly uneven radio diary for RTÉ's Today with Pat Kenny, which veered from engrossing personal meditation to knee-jerk bien pensant political commentary. (The piece entitled ‘Sitting At My Mother’s Bedside’ being a fine example of the former, 'Osama Bin Bush' marking the latter's unfortunate nadir).
Yet Durcan’s popularity is indebted more than anything to the frequent hilariousness of his writing. Humour, of course, has been an essential component of the Durcan brand since the beginning. One of his signatures is the poem written as faux-reportage, where a bizarre or unlikely event is depicted in a humdrum almost journalistic style. Here are some examples plucked from different collections more-or-less at random: ‘The Married Man Who Fell in Love with a Semi-State Body’, ‘Margaret Thatcher Joins IRA’ and ‘Wife Who Smashed Television Gets Jail’.
While this mock-journalistic approach features less in Durcan’s more recent collections he is still prone to richly comedic flights of fancy, some merely quirky, some almost manically surreal: ‘The Man with Five Penises’, the several-times-anthologized ‘My Beloved Compares Herself to a Pint of Stout’. The titles say it all really.
Life is a Dream is also littered with exquisitely observed and often very funny character studies. Particularly memorable among these sketches are the early ‘Mr Goldsmith, My Father’s Friend’, which describes a man who ‘always relieved himself in the garden’, the portrait of a typical doughty Cork pensioner in ‘Old Lady, Middle Parish’, and the summer-sweetened portrayal of the sports-mad priest who says the 12 O’clock Mass in Roundstone, County Galway.
Yet this almost uncontrollable playfulness cannot conceal Durcan’s deep and probably unhealable psychic wounds, some of which seem to have been inflicted by the particular facts of his biography, some by merely being human. Foremost among his oeuvre are the poems that while often still humorous attempt to assay and even salve this inner damage. For it is on such pieces that his long-term reputation will probably rest. Particular stand-outs in this regard are the anguished poems about his father from Daddy, Daddy, whichare almost compulsively readable. Sit down to one and you can't help but devour them all. Memorably bruising, too, are the poems selected from Cries of an Irish Caveman, where pieces such as ‘Bovinity’, ‘Torn in Two’ and the long title poem seem to document the grim aftermath of a failed long-term relationship. These are just a few of the occasions where Durcan looks despair unblinkingly in the mouth.
It has often been pointed out, even by female commentators, that Durcan has an uncanny ability to write convincingly from a woman’s point of view. Yet it is a point worth making again. For by bringing so much of his work together, Life is a Dream impresses on us the sheer range of female personae and personalities Durcan has inhabited over the years. He gives us everything from the long suffering writer’s wife in ‘Raymond of the Rooftops’, to the old woman ogling Ken Doherty while watching Snook on television, to the courageous missionary nun in ‘In Memoriam Sister Mary Magdalena, Martyr’.
It would be incorrect to describe Durcan as a poetic stylist. His interest in ‘traditional poetic form’ is almost confined to his trademark use of refrain. Nor do we get the sense that his free verse has been especially chiseled or massaged. There is also an occasional tendency to go on too long. Durcan's loose style is suited to a larger canvas. However, certain pieces, such as the otherwise promising 'Give him Bondi', are over-extended to the point of flaccidity.
Yet what have been called Durcan's technical limitations are ultimately part of his very great charm. His poetry, it would seem, can only come in a rich profusion, pouring forth with the energy and carelessness of a river that has burst its banks. Life is a Dream is a book readers will find will find themselves opening again and again; drawn back by the seductive quirkiness of his singular take on human existence, by the amiable clamour of the voices he so artfully conjures and above all by his burning and defiant love for the world that has damaged him so deeply and disappointed him so much.
©2009 Billy Ramsell
Poems and extended bio at Poetry International Web
Ramsell poem 'For the Bodiless' in Horizon magazine
Ramsell poem 'Breath' in the Stinging Fly
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