Tuesday, 28 April 2015

I minute poem 'BENEFITS' for Poets against apathy by the Firm of Poets

I wrote this to be a 1 minute poem about 'Benefits' to be part of FirmAgainstApathy leading up to the UK's May General Election 2015.

It was filmed as a quick run through prior to me doing it for the Sleaford Mods film coming out in October 2015, which of course I did much better!

Hope you enjoy this

if the above fails to play, click on this link

Benefits - full poem [denotes cuts to make a one minute poem] 

I will pull myself up onto the butcher’s table
for You to pick your weekly cuts,
the Nation’s Rich deem
we no longer deserve our souls,
Every day we can be called forward to be inspected
whilst the rich do the ‘accepted’ thing,
cheat on paying their full taxes, a ‘cultural’ norm
to claim THEIR expected cash benefits,
and so YOU, the jealously ill,
are let loose,
to hound US
the poor, unemployed and disabled,
rallying to hunt us down,
the Media branded unworthy,
the head-boys calling their fags
to chase down the quarry,
to harry us, split us off,
in these ‘Benefit Games’
until we fall exhausted and broken
then rationally and fairly,
crushing our bones to make a pleasing sound,
encouraging the tearing of flesh from the fallen,
to lean the joy of spinning us again and again
on pins of unimportance, on pins of unimportance, on pins of unimportance,
[normalise these jaws of deviance
organising the Transport of our lives through
‘unexpected’ non-payments, water-boarding sanctions, poverty taxes}
so I will pull myself back up onto the butcher’s table
for YOU to view my weaknesses,
to ask again for all my intimate details,
to pick through austerity’s collateral
for your pound of flesh.

Jonathan Eyre   April 2015

More about Firm of Poets

@AFirmOfPoets #FirmAgainstApathy:

More about the Sleaford Mods

Monday, 16 March 2015

Do you STOP soon enough?

Sally has a great blog and is a very fine blogger, and this question , also posted on an M.E. Community Facebook page triggered the following poem

Thank you Sally.

With glass walls and ceilings all around

with glass walls and ceilings all around,
easy to shatter, wafer thin
often within reach but unseen,
to find, the shadow of 'soon enough',
is difficult with the mirages of doing,
boredom and necessity
rising above the horizon,
pulling up the next set of targets
to be examined and rejected as
'too much',
'too soon',
'that will be fine',
with this heady mixture
and underground currents
ready to tear at my legs
to pluck my thoughts away,
pulling the words from my throat
to cover them up in sand,
my feet cannot always find the firm ground,
touch the bottom of the pool,
I cannot always make sure
that I will not
drown tomorrow
through the actions
of today.
Do I maintain the count
of the steps I took today
compare them to yesterday, last week
or trust in how my body feels,
gauge its creaks as a miner
listening to the protests of pit-props?
Often I am drowning deep down,
I either swim
or die of thirst.
                                           Jonathan Eyre - March 16th 2015

Friday, 6 March 2015

Moving off into the new year at last!

my latest finished poem, completed at Blank Page Industries writing space.

Freedom Walks
I take mobility scooters off path
hear the tyres tread over
woodland forest litter
the rustle of leaves stirred
with the hum
of torque from the
electric freedom generator
wheels squelch
breaking the hold
of grass obscured mud
ridged tyre tracks
across the backs of parkland
falsely portray my journey as regimented,
really this steed tilts my expectations
to the skies and beyond
as I scramble over
humps and dips of off-pitched country
feel the clip and clunk
under the frame
of rock and stone
breeching the Earth's surface.
I take mobility scooters off road,
off pavement,
off path
off centre,
Jonathan Eyre Feb 2015.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Stopping the Clocks

'Stopping the Clocks'

Out Today - First ever collection of Poems published - a flight of poems in a Pamphlet about M.E. 

- First available at Poetry By Heart event @ Headingley HEART Wednesday 26th , 7.30 pm - Part of Headingley Literature Festivalhttp://www.headingleylitfest.org.uk/programme.html

Details of gig - https://www.facebook.com/events/421222024679007/

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Times?- they are changed

latest poem a week offering to the relentless stream-babble of the decent of humankind down the easier path-of-less-resistance decision making that we seem to collectively roll out since about 1980...is it Wham!'s fault, did they not wake us up before they go go ed....

#9 Everything is changed

Totally right on man and power to the people
Keep the planet turning and save the whales ‘cos they are more important than a Star Trek movie
Give flowers to the National Guard, stick one down a barrel

Turn on, tune in, drop OUT, and never get off the bus
The conscious mind is a rapid fire linguistic onion that brings tears to the children of tomorrow
You and Me and We are the Egg Men, ‘cos the torture never stops

When a Happening happens you just do what you do man see those colours on the wall, cool
Hang on to this bong for me I have to go for a slash
And why don’t those chicks give out more now they are on the Pill -giggle giggle giggle

Are you going to Scarborough Fair on Height Ashbury
Isle of White tip toeing through the tulips of the Squares’ up-tight minds
Jimmy Hendrix died chocked on the sick of a rebellious stomach

Don’t know and never go eat that yellow snow where the meerkats go
Cos I’ve got the stink foot baby, wona cry all over you
The Isle of Kintyre and the frog song took the wings off the plane and ended it all

Landing on the moon was the start of the end of human kind
The overdue bill for growth and the debt economy is no foundation to build blue sky dreams on
Flying pigs fracking shale rock for their last buck and loose-change saloon bundle

Another thing to avoid, poison in the water, the air has less air in it now
Daytime tv adverts of dying children blemished with the sanctity of deep voice monthly sincerity
Keep sane, turn the human senses to standby, show only a small blue l.e.d energy killing

In bright light the warning lights cannot be seen
Mama and Papa left here on a jet plane knowing that we cannot go back again and left us
This is the City we half dreamed of, sky scrapers and everything for a dollar

Oh baby dissolving and changing in the dawn clouds of drought and flood and ice vortexes
Oh lover gone in a swirl of patchouli and long flowing dresses shimmering on hips of sunshine
Oh mama can’t cook no meal for you no more

Oh baby, spirit gone and walked out on me, climate changed
Stars blinked and coughed blinded by energy-saving street prison lighting, laughing above our hearing
Water is simmering to the boil and the frogs are dreaming of the times of tadpoles.

Frank Zappa - Peak a Boo

Friday, 28 February 2014

Tainted love

Tainted Love  - an Invitation

So come to my cash point,
and push your debit card between my reception rollers, 
reveal your flexible credit card to me,
your red, growing and engorged debt to me,
and I will let you withdraw riches...........
plunder me to the full extent
of your deposit and credit limit, 
handle me until I bleep for you to withdraw, 
unless or until my Masters' call 
a halt to our games, 
and insist that finance is all about propriety, 
and stifle your lust with demands upon 
your property, 
and curb your excesses 
by calling me in, 
your once willing lover
to say NO, 
my mistress now is austerity,
no longer a whore to abundant fiscal growth
no more to groan under your insistent demands. 
You thought you were gaining more from me,
when all along 
my pimps are conjuring riches 
from your indebted embraces. 

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Mastery of the Thing -Week 5 of the fiftytwo (poem a week) challenge

I continue to accept the challenge of a poem a week in 2014

And here I am, turning to one of the loves of my life, a creature I have a passion for, and anchoring these visions in words with another love of mine, poetry, and communicating with the magic of words, with others.

You will note that these is no punctuation, this is on purpose, and tries to reflect the animal nature I am contacting, revealing, in these special creatures of the psyche. 

Can we as humans change and break from the past? The Times they are a Changing! 

#5 The Mastery of the Thing

look again
the black on black on the wing
Koww caw
a startling of black into the falling night
a flock of flicking black across the hedges 
across the road of cars and their lights
and we are away in the dusk
adding to the more distant calls

black claws on black legs
hunkered against the weather
repel the wet grasses and water-poached soils
ripple feathers to the wind

always it is my species fault
that we are the colour of night
of your darkness
the Spirit of the Wild cut 
a knowing of human spirit and fate 
deep into our being
your arrogance makes you think
that we enjoy this intimate knowledge
of you and your kind
that we are privileged
to carry a spark of understanding of you
it is amazing that we can still fly with
the weight of your broken secrets
your ozings of vengeful hearts
sorrows each second
only the strength of nature’s struggle 
the call to freedom, 
carries our bodies skyward
keeps our souls from being torn
wind and cold broken 
I am glad I am not you

winter hunger
calls us to feed feed feed
picking the morsels from the sodden patches on the fields
always looking to the ground
till you venture closer

some of us cannot carry the burden well
seek each other’s company
always to quarter the fields together
perch in groups against the silent hunger
of the knowing of you

I am of the shaman clan
we can stand or fly undaunted alone
having broken the ties of time
look each of you in the eye
wait for those of you who wish to feel
the glint of the keyhole to the spirit
we can pass close to you
balance in-between moments
timeless sparks of unreasoned
corvide knowing

always we have to have lookout
check the tangent of travel and thought
ready to leave you to the cold wind
the bright sun
the rain or the flowers
the blue and greys of skies and clouds
to your walk 
your business 
here in your assumed world
we fly to left or right
to close trees or far
wait some more
your buildings and desires
specks of passing

always there is the fear in you
pleading to be drawn out
as we reflect
the stolen essence of human kind 
that we once drank in jealously
in craving the knowledge of you 
expecting to gain great wisdom
Nature tricked us
the knowledge we sought
blights us with the knowing of your fate
so we try and warn you
of the instability of your minds
of desires conjured from fantasies
to break the slavery
the labels the mind silently enforces
on you
we call to you to find inside
the light you fly from
we call in voices
broken by timeless repeating

alerting you to this curse
caw caw
wait for you to listen
to see
to break free
so we call to you

yet deep in you is that urge to kill us
to kill that what you see in us 
your desperate need to hide from the dark within
can you not face it
are you still that primitive
to hurl the hate outward
to name our gatherings as murder
rather than to look within
can you not call back to me
can you join as one
to speak in the language of yearning
the language of warning
language conjured from a knowing

Friday, 31 January 2014

Fifty-two: a poem a week - Three poems to build on for 2014

I have entered into the spirit of the New Year with looking to expand my work, do more poetry gigs, and get something published.

I have produced 5 poems so far in response to this wonderful internet page.

Here are 3 of my first drafts attempts - Three poems to build on for 2014

#1 how to approach a year?
Look around the hotel room.
Inspection reveals more about yourself than the objects, they say.

The view from the window is advertised as restricted,
they all are.

The purpose of the room?
You can think deep about this but need not to, I assure you.

If facing a year in this room
you need to get out more, and worry less about the fixtures or fitting in.

The room ain’t going to move anywhere,
but you can, in so many ways.
In your imagination you can remodel what you like,
those sheets need a clean.
New sheets!

A hotel room is not permanent,
it is you that chooses to make it so.


Jonathan Eyre              1/1/2014

#2 Travelling the Park
Meanwood Park
                                                    Def  Meanwood = a common wood on the edge of settlement

Always there is 
the single lone crow, 
apart from the others,
across this other side of me,
looking around, seeming surprised of my company
cocking its head from side to side
pacing the grass, scanning the ground 
and looking across towards the trees, 
through towards the evergreens
just checking that all is in its place,
that all is clear
and then another drowning morsel to pull,
to ease with sharp icy beak from this soaking water-logged land.
The wind
fluttering the feathers,
you could never tell from that 
that it was so cold,
so much a January day
so much of the sky supported by the Yew trees,
one hunkered down, 
the height of a couple of men, broken.
Two others, lithe, 
sucking the water clear from the sodden ground
leaving a rare dry area to walk across
to get back to the wall gate
from whence I came a walking.

Jonathan Eyre                                            January 2014

 #4 Invitation
(on hearing that HSBC and its China money is restricting credit again 27/1/14)

So come to my cash point,
and push your debit card between my reception rollers,
reveal your flexible credit card to me,
your red, growing and engorged debt to me,
and I will let you withdraw riches...........
plunder me to the full extent
of your deposit and credit limit,
handle me until I bleep for you to withdraw, 
unless or until my Masters' call
a halt to our games,
and insist that finance is all about propriety,
and stifle your lust with demands upon
your property,
and curb your excesses
by calling  me in,
your once willing lover
to say NO,
my mistress now is austerity,
no longer a whore to abundant fiscal growth
no more to groan under your insistent demands.
You thought you were gaining more from me,
when all along
my pimps are conjuring riches
from your indebted embraces.   

Jonathan Eyre                   January 2014

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The Growth Economy - a WW1 Mentality.................

for the BBC, hey any national media outlet, a good summary of the impact of climate change, extreme weather effects and events, and the way of 'things to come'

......meanwhile Politicians continue to frog-march and recruit us towards the same 'growth economy at all costs' trench warfare, as out of touch with the reality and consequences of their actions, based on a world picture that is as misguided and death loaded as were the visions of Politicians and the 1st World War army commanders back in 1914

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Gormless Environment Minister and his empty ideology....

'To accept that ancient woodland can be offset with new planting is to believe that ancient woodland is just a collection of old trees. Such thinking allows us to demolish St Paul’s Cathedral to be offset with a similarly sized pile of new bricks, or to replace our loved one with a random person of similar build who will sit at the other end of the sofa and have sex with us every third Friday.'

so I posted on owen's blog
'So well said. YES! Thank you for such a brilliant blog. I keep telling all who will listen that for every mile of the HS2 a SSSI is to be destroyed (because they are economically worthless and the cheapest land to build on for ‘public’ infrastructure), and they all look gormless too, so now I can explain. thanks to your wonderful paragraph above. Thank you so much!'

Read more below from this excellent blog.....


Wednesday, 2 October 2013

A review of me from Monday Night (30/9/13)

Awh, Thank you.

'Jonathan Eyre brings his poetry to life with a performance style that speaks of the theater; every word spoken just so to leave the perfect imprint on the listeners mind. His poem about ME I heard for the second time tonight, and if anything it only moved me more upon repetition.'

Full review athttp://soundsoftime.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/post-box-poets-the-return/

More on M.E. - for those that would like to share
Jonathan says: "Having written for all my life, I have found that poems do sometimes work, not just as an expression of one's own position and frustrations, but as a link to others, giving a hint of what M.E. does to the individual, the abilities it affects, and the day to day reality of living with the repercussions. To this end I would like to submit to you three poems, reflecting some stages of trying to deal with M.E., and to try and get a few wins and some sort of life back."


Saturday, 15 June 2013

Night and Day Robbery - M.E. LIKED

Posted this on Chronic Fatigue/ME FB page as a response to some sad and difficult morning posts on there recently about waking up and feeling like death, and how 'others' don't get it, that this is a chronic condition, it don't just go with more sleep or a better attitude, this is what it is......

Jonathan Eyre
Night and Day Robbery
hang-over mornings
and no alcohol or drugs taken:
so typical of this disease that
robs us even of the joy of solo or social
settings of stimulant misuse.
Stolen moments replaced
with the hours of
down sides alone.
Another morning 'sobering up'
to M.E.s painful partnership.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Always in the top ten - disability discrimination, state sponsored and coming in under your radar

'In ancient Greece a cripple or beggar or criminal (the pharmakos) was cast out of the community, either in response to a natural disaster (such as a plague, famine or an invasion) or in response to a calendrical crisis (such as the end of the year).' [wikipedia]

Dibs is on disabled people.............always top of the list apparently, and still coming in high, and always in the top 10!

Disability sanitised

We have never left the shores of ignorance behind,
merely built new piers and breakwaters of attitudes
to hold back the tide of internal change.

Superstitions re-sown
re-ironed labels

Through generations
secrecy re-engaged,
society's invisible balm.

Charitable attitudes and state justified attacks
now tuned to frameworks of benevolent policy and ramped access.
All crumble behind the real walls of gate keepers

paid to close the doors,
paid to measure the length
of one's subservience to another's power

For us to listen to their handed down justifications;
to limit who we are,
who we can become,

to risk our lives to their callous hands, made,
it would seem, from empty promises
and condescending eyes,

conscience paid-off
the tab cleared,
spun on a purpose far from public sight,

set on courses not even you know of,
rather not seen at all,
or perceived, a vision hidden,

seemingly etched into
the fabric of fear, veil fixed,
nailed to your closed

form filling
box ticked

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Two New Poems Going down well......

I have now performed these two poems at several events and they seem to be picking up both the mood of disability destruction now unleashed in the UK, one helping to highlight this inhuman media manipulated attack on the disabled and the other the human need to awaken our inner world and provide the space and creativity to we need to grow. Not changing is not an option any-more.

It might be one step forward two steps backwards, but with your help it can be one step forward no steps backwards.

Always at poetry events  I feel the need to recite at least one poem about the active and outrageous attack on the disabled being carried out here in the Eng Ger Land, started by Blairites, and now championed in gold meddling position, by the apparently Joseph Goebbels inspired Ian Dunkin Smythe, Minister of Big Lie Propaganda.

Yesterday Lemn Sissay dropped into the 'Wicked Words', the first open mic night for 2013 and a special night it was too, with a sparkling array of poets.

Here are my 2 poems. Read and Live!

is now cranked up,
all            the                way                 to 11!
But it is no joke!
Will 'you'
all be
‘the Disappeared'
“Where have Doris and Arthur gone?”
“Oh I don’t know, they had to be moved because they had a spare bedroom”
“No, I’ve not heard from them since, still, probably for the best eh?!”

The talons of the Government’s ‘joy-through-work’ rhetoric
cut a deep-ploughed furrow.
Layers of our minds lie exposed.
The bed-rock of our morality cracking
under steel-toed echoes of the Nazi-Flag led
social-solution for the ‘unproductive’ and ‘inferior breeds’.
The call to hate repeated through the Media Empire.
……’and the ways to make life impossible for the ‘unproductive’ are so varied’…..

We, the disabled, are
functionality-tested and emotionally undressed.
Intimately exposed.
The insect object of these powerful
and their bureaucracies;
“all questions will be answered!”

Showered by their computer scripted
‘exclusion tones’.
Scrouted by those non-medical gate-keeping
the successors to the railway clerks of the ‘Transports’,
Just ‘filling in the forms’ to move this very different cargo.
Our intimate knowledge of our health and ourselves ignored.
Examined and Re-examined and re-examined
for observation purposes alone,
our inabilities and impairments repeated
a liturgy, a prayer of hope
uttered as much to ourselves, alone,
as to these banks of public and private ‘partnerships’
who wait for us to fall down, to be tripped up,
To be sent back to the end of the queue, with all benefits cancelled.
We are repeatedly turned-inside out,
Like the innards of slugs salted to an exploding death,
or like a snail, eye-hooked from its shell for the 100th time
to be told to get back into it,
“stop complaining”
“learn to live a work-justified life …….!”
or else what?

The Pall of death of our lives is hanging
over all of us disabled; right now!
............we can smell the pyre and hear its muffling approach..... …
bushfires …………………………of the darkening night of discrimination.

For the Government’s ‘Scrounger War-Mongerers’
peddling their pre-set health-scam re-justifications,
people like myself with M.E
are some of the first to fall-foul,
are the easy target to out-run and smother,
down-graded to lesser and lesser persons
in their pursuit of ‘Their’ defined ‘Equality’.

We, the victims of discrimination, have the right to define equality; Not them!

“All will be rounded up and tested for fitness!”
That is the order,
that is what is being done now
in this En ger land.
all will be placed into the public’s redefined
and media created
money-saving work-shy group!
I can feel the station platform under our feet
hear the clank of a steam engine as it stands waiting for our departure,
today’s plain-clothed troops
in their anonymous business-centre, 
making it all seem ordered and unthreatening
to those that by stand.

The orders have been issued
only no-one can ever trace the words to the leaders,
their smiles denying that they can be seen as deliberately cruel,
merely rational
 in these times of “hard  economic……………..
“pursuing justice for the tax payer”
for you and you and you.
Waging a war on the redefined and growing ‘undeserving’.
No command for the ‘Final Solution’ was ever recoded,
Just fulfilling the ‘Will of the People’, it seemed.

….and some will be declared ‘the worthy’
and can have charity done to them,
by corporate sponsors, or supermarkets of choice,
so you
can choose
to whom
you prefer…..
to give……………
                                 if you like.
Charities queuing up to help to appease.
….and some may be pulled from this war-carnage of envy and spite
but what of us others,……………………………………………….
what of us others………………………..
what of us?


Birds in Your Heart

Have the birds
of your heart
deserted you,
gone away and left you?
Have the songs of your heart been silenced?
Do not fear.
If asked
they will return; These
heart birds need
only to be asked.

Create a space;
Nature abhors a vacuum.
Call the birds to the aching
and one day they will return to you,
and sing in the morning
and through the day,
and at night,
and even at times,
Call the sun,
the moon,
and the stars;
To shine
for you.

Jonathan Eyre September 2012

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Poetry 7.30 pm Wednesday January 16th 2013

Defying Disability, Ignorance and Denial, 
"Is it because I am disabled?"

LCA Poetry evening Hosted by Me, 
at the HEART Centre in Headingley, Leeds.
7.30 pm Wednesday January 16th 2013
All welcome to read in the second half of the evening.
Entrance £3.00/£1.00 concessions and members

Photo: Defying Disability, Ignorance and Denial, 
"Is it because I am disabled?"

LCA Poetry evening Hosted by Jonathan Eyre, 
at the HEART Centre in Headingley, Leeds.
7.30 pm Wednesday January 16th 2013
All welcome to read in the second half of the evening.
Entrance £3.00/£1.00 concessions and members

Friday, 28 December 2012

Dennis O’Driscoll Interview


Interview by Elizabeth MacDonald

You have been a civil servant now for thirty odd years. How do you relate to Yeats’ dictum that there can be either perfection of the life or perfection of the work?
Yeats’s melodies are so memorable that they naturally seduce us into quoting them and lull us into crediting them. But I wonder how much scrutiny the lines you allude to can stand:
The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
I believe in those lines as poetry (albeit poetry of a distinctly rhetorical cast) and surrender to them as song; but I wouldn’t exactly look to them for How to Live guidance. The notion that ‘perfection’ can be achieved in either work or life is a faery fantasy; and I’m completely in the Celtic twilight as to why one should be no less than forced to choose between them. Presumably, what Yeats means is that one should aspire to perfection - but, if so, why not aspire to perfection in both work and life, knowing one is doomed to fail in both? Yeats managed to make his soul as he built his oeuvre and he was shrewd enough to realise that the energy (carnal, political, theatrical) he was expending in the life was also energising and informing his work as a poet.
To move from Yeats’s Tower to Dublin Castle, in or about which most of my working life has been spent, is a steep climbdown. Finding myself somehow possessed of a life, and unable to charge anyone else with responsibility for its maintenance and upkeep, I began working in Dublin as an Executive Officer in the Estate Duty Office when I was sixteen. I signed the attendance book at about 9.15 every day and remained under the supervisory eye of my boss until 5.30 when I could return to my nearby bedsitter with its two-bar electric fire and ’smell of steaks in passageways’. Adding ‘the halfpence to the pence’ in this line of business meant totting up the value of the house and lands, goods and chattels of a deceased person, deducting his or her debts and funeral expenses, and calculating the Death Duties owed. The pillared basement of the building, where the old wills and affidavits were stored, was a bureaucratic Valhalla. In Yeats’s file, which I unearthed there, his Norman tower and samurai sword made for very exotic assets in contrast with the lump-sum gratuities and Royal Liver insurance pay-outs typically bequeathed by others. After Death Duties, I moved on promotion to Stamp Duties; and, for most of the last ten years, I have worked in a 5th floor office at Castle House where the International Branch of Customs is located: drafting documents, contributing to policy papers, acting as Irish delegate at EU working group meetings, writing analytical briefings for the ‘high level’ Customs Policy Group, arranging EU Customs training for officers from East Europe, Russia and the former Soviet Republics…
Having been naturally bookish since childhood, a day-job among people who never read a poem from one decade to the next has been salutary and sobering, grounding me in everyday experience and broadening the subject-matter and language available to me. When the Irish Government finally established a Department of Arts and Culture in the 1990s, I was repeatedly encouraged by the Department to enlist in its ranks; but I didn’t budge from the Stamp Duty adjudication office, where I specialised in the intricate provisions relating to company reorganisations and amalgamations. I seem to need a certain contrast - even conflict - between my working life and artistic pursuits. Ideas for poems almost always occur when I am going about my worldly business; my desk at home is where the poems end, not where they begin.
What drove you to write poetry? Who are the poets that have most influenced you?
‘Drove’ is the word! I am very driven when it comes to poetry - a complete obsessive, if the truth be told. I see one film a year at most, find television unbearably literal and listen to music only intermittently (though it can move me deeply because its flooding of my auditory canal is a relative rarity). Apart from poetry, my interests have gravitated towards visual art since I received, as a five-year old artist of the realist school, a merit award in the Caltex (now Texaco) children’s art competition - for a drawing of beet-filled trucks converging on the sugar factory in Thurles, my home town. The shape made on the page is always a crucial consideration in determining whether or not a poem of my own is complete.
Only ’slow’ classes were permitted to study art in the boys’ secondary school in Thurles; and I wasn’t deemed quite slow enough to be an artist. Of the subjects I was allowed to learn, I came to love Latin and English best. I never glimpse a shelf of Loeb Classics in a bookshop without a stinging sense of having missed out on something vital by not having read nearly enough of them; a deficit I would give an arm and a leg - a crus and a bracchium is it? - to make good some day. In that same secondary school, the three decisive Damascus moments in English class were hearing Shakespeare’s ‘When Icicles Hang by the Wall’ being read one morning in a grotty classroom that was well past its demolish-by date; learning Wordsworth’s ‘There Was a Boy…’ by heart and immediately taking his work to heart; seeing a teacher write on a blackboard (as if he were composing the words as the chalk bounced and scraped along): ‘The trees are in their autumn beauty, / The woodland paths are dry…’
Encouragement from my English teachers for writing was non-existent. I expected none and I needed none. However, the headmaster, an enlightened Christian Brother called Peter Guilfoyle, took some interest in my scribbling tendencies and invited me to represent the school in a poetry competition for children judged by Stevie Smith and Brian Patten. More ambiguously, another Brother introduced me, when I was fifteen, to a visiting inspector as ‘a bit of an author’. I avidly entered essay competitions; poems and stories of mine were broadcast on Radio Éireann children’s programmes presented by Terry Wogan and Terry Prone. My best incentive for pithy writing, though, surely came one evening when a delivery truck from Thurles railway station unloaded the three-speed state-of-the-art bicycle I had won for completing the tie-breaker, ‘I’d love to own a brand-new Raleigh Diplomat bicycle because…’.
In your critical writings, you have consistently favoured form over content in a poem. For you, what constitutes the ideal poem?
Just as ‘no foal, no fee’ is a commonplace arrangement in the horse-breeding world, ‘no form, no poem’ is a truism insofar as the breeding of poems is concerned. I love the way form and rhythm (another sine qua non of poetry) can somehow confer a higher destiny and density on even the most workaday words, equipping them to outperform their prose brethren and enabling them to achieve presence and intensity and transcendence, even when the tone and content are downbeat and low-key.
Unfortunately, content - which in many respects is inseparable from form - is being downgraded as the fashion for elliptical and incoherent poetry (the flip-side of cosy accessibility), now rampant in America, increasingly exerts an international hold on poets. How better to disguise the banality of one’s workshopped work than to conceal its shortcomings behind a fig leaf of obscurity or a mask of manic cleverness? Presumably, those poets hope that readers will be simpleminded enough to equate obscurity with profundity, incoherence with experiment and cleverness with wisdom. At least Dylan Thomas at his most maddeningly obscure could still orchestrate his waffly words with a certain magniloquent majesty. I have no difficulty whatsoever with difficulty and am prepared to take my chances with C.D. Wright and Michael Palmer and many another difficult poet, from John Donne to Paul Celan. But wilful obscurity I disdain, not least because it arrogantly assumes rights to so much of the reader’s meagre life-span, demanding absurdly large investments of time for what is usually a negligible or negative return.
One reason why much of the greatest poetry is so uncannily and transparently clear (and I don’t mean facile) is because it is a record of those rare, transfixing moments when some normally opaque corner of existence is unveiled and we are granted a fleeting glimpse into ‘the heart of things’. Poetry draws on depths of emotion and reserves of wisdom that are plumbed by instinctive, almost primitive, means - the opposite of conscious ‘cleverality’. No matter how many sophisticated theories are propounded in support of the view that the one true subject of poetry is the poem itself, I remain completely unconvinced.
After all that preaching against obscurity, it’s time to practice clarity and simply answer your question! I would say the ideal poem is not only one that stands up to multiple readings, but which grows and ramifies with each additional reading. Best of all, it teases and troubles you into either making return visits or learning it by heart. Having lured you into doing so, it seems to have gained imaginative weight every time you renew its acquaintance.
You have said: “To arrogate to yourself some larger role as seer or clairvoyant is to succumb to a deluded megalomania of a kind which is endemic in the literary world.” Is this a reaction to the legacy of Yeats?
I certainly don’t want to be so foolish as to make a poetic punch bag of the great Yeats, the most various and copious of poets and one capable, even on his deathbed, of rising to the terza rima magnificence of ‘Cuchulain Comforted’. But, yes, I suppose the Yeats who - flirting with Madame Blavatsky’s magical ideas - literally believed that the medium was the message, or indeed the bow-tied bard who behaved so theatrically (not just in the Abbey but when treading the floorboards of great Anglo-Irish houses) can occasionally be off-putting. What matters is that the finished poetry, however tortuous or apparently bogus the means by which Yeats produced it, utterly redeemed the shortcomings of the man.
Genuine poetry reminds us how little we truly know; it is a vehicle for discovery, not a conduit for omniscience. While poetry can play an ethical role in society, by restoring trust in words, the idea of the poet as the sole spokesperson on whom people can count when propaganda and ideology proliferate comes down in the end to a handful of aureate names. Even the most revered, such as Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak, had their wavering moments - as did poets of Nobel status like George Seferis from Greece and Wislawa Szymborska from Poland when tested in later times. For every Mandelstam or Milosz, countless others in East Europe were prepared to cash in their truth-coupons for a quiet life, a holiday dacha and a well-appointed apartment - and who can say what any of us might have done in the same circumstances? Realistically speaking, I’m afraid Parnassus and idealism can claim far less influence than Hollywood and consumerism on the fall of the Berlin Wall; some of the best-known Russian poets of our time were particularly shifty, pretending to challenge the Party line, while in reality their lines seemed ghost-written by the Party.
Because poets can feel inert and ineffectual and neglected, they are often dangerously tempted to seize any modicum of power within their grasp and to wield it neither too wisely nor too well. Many major twentieth-century poets became apologists for - rather than antagonists of - odious ideologies of the left or right. So much for the wisdom of poets. At the same time, poetry cannot pretend to be innocent of politics and must be able to register the political tremors which impact on everyday life, whether these bring down the house or merely rattle the crockery. The subtlety of the political stance adopted by Northern Irish poets during the house-rupturing divisions of the Troubles was exemplary. Resisting the pressure to take sides in a small community and deploying the forces of poetical imagination rather than political ideology, they undoubtedly enhanced the moral standing of poetry. In a different context, a Southern Irish one, the highly original way in which Thomas McCarthy uses party politics both as dramatic subject and as multiple metaphor definitely has my vote also.
Your poetry alternates lyricism and bleakness. There are also instances where it is permeated by the desire to give a voice to the language of law and commerce. Could this represent a narrowing of the gap between another and more pervasive polarisation: that between the artistic and the scientific? The gap separating parallel views of the cosmos and the universe? I’m thinking, for example, of “Missing God”.
Some poets work wonders within very narrow confines. Having discovered their métier, they refine and perfect their methods. A random list of such poets - all of them variously gifted - would include Louise Bogan, A.E. Housman, Emily Dickinson, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Stevie Smith and Edward Thomas. My own personal affinity is with writing that is not associated with any single theme or tone, form or formula. I like to run the gamut from the sensuous and celebratory to the sardonic and scathing - with as many options as possible kept open in between: poem or anti-poem, pithy lyric or extended sequence; the language of bureaucracy (of which I am a native speaker) or a more heightened idiolect (the idea that every poem must be written in the vernacular is as wrong-headed as the notion that a kind of elocuted accent is a necessary component of lyricism).
A fusion of the scientific and the imaginative is something many poets would like to achieve; but how much do the majority of us know about science - other than what can be half-grasped from scanning Scientific American or sitting through some TV documentary busy with special effects? My fascination with science is considerable, my command of its elements negligible. A Weetabix Map of the Solar System orbited above my boyhood bed - the colourful planets were lined up for all the world like a celestial game of marbles; and I pored over material about Mars and the solar system in my weekly copy of Look & Learn. One thing I learned from looking at the work of poets like Ronald Duncan and Hugh MacDiarmid is that poems which are force-fed with scientific data are about as digestible as a Weetabix moon rock.
Although our age is a scientific one, my upbringing in the Ireland of the 1950s and 1960s was, above all, intensely Catholic. It is second nature to me therefore to substitute theological notions of eternity for scientific ideas of infinity and to mediate cosmic quandaries through Biblical metaphor and parable as much as through scientific hypothesis and formula. I also feel that the more evidence science accumulates, the more the plot thickens. If the world can be said to have begun, how and why did it do so, and what preceded the Big Bang? Why, as scientists themselves ask, is there something rather than nothing? I doubt if definitive answers to those questions will ever be found, fascinating and perilous though the search will be.
Your poetry is one of yearning and loss. The frame over which this poetic canvas is stretched seems to be time. How important for you is man’s relationship with time?
That Renaissance man we know as William Shakespeare was, of course, one of the great poets of time and returned obsessively to the notion of poetry as preservative, something that will still blossom freshly when the bloom has faded from the human cheeks that inspired it. But however frequently and brilliantly the subject of time may have been addressed by our greatest predecessors, it remains an inexhaustible preoccupation for many of us. Indeed, the speeded-up world of e-mail, text messages and UPS which we now inhabit gives us a new perspective on a theme that is timeless.
By the way, I ought to own up to an eccentric habit of mine, prevalent in the years when I was about twelve or thirteen (it’s alluded to in ‘Tempus Fugit’, a poem in my collection Long Story Short). Whether through mere boredom in class or some unaccountable lurch into cub mysticism, I would occasionally look at the old pendulum clock on the schoolroom wall and note down the precise time on a piece of paper. Staring at this ‘data’ later, I tritely pondered the fact that the time I had recorded was gone for ever: I am now X minutes older than I was then, it will never ever again be that time on this day….
On poetry, you have written: “Today’s preference is for poetry that hovers between the oblique and the obscure, that is knowing but not revealing, that hints at significance without doing anything as old-fashioned as delivering any.” This is certainly true of the opulent, Postmodern West. You greatly admire East European poets such as Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wislawa Szymborska, and Miroslav Holub. What have you found in their poetry that delights you?
My copy of Miroslav Holub’s Selected Poems was bought in 1971, when I was seventeen. The source of this Penguin paperback was the Eblana Bookshop in Dublin, then a rich repository of books about show-jumping (in which I had a passing interest) and poetry (the ascendant Pegasus in my life). Very very few books in my adult existence have overwhelmed and excited me to the extent that this Czech book in translation did: it wooed and won me permanently to poetry, till death do us part. Furthermore, it made me simultaneously sympathetic to poetry in translation (though I am only too well aware of the drawbacks and distortions involved) and eager to explore Central and East European poetry. To question Holub’s political outlook - to ask whether or not this medical doctor and immunologist was a dissident - never occurred to me at the time. I was simply gravitating towards a playful voice which I instinctively trusted: witty, sceptical, exploring life-and-death issues with the lightest of poetry scalpels and a devastatingly ironic bedside manner. My chance discovery of Holub led me to other laconic-ironic East European poets, notably Tadeusz Rózewicz and Zbigniew Herbert, as well as Bertolt Brecht and Reiner Kunze from Germany. They gave me courage to take my first tentative steps down the unpaved path of ‘anti-poetry’.
Of living poets whose work I know only in translation, much the most important for me are Wislawa Szymborska - at once slyly wry and deeply wise - and especially Czeslaw Milosz. Although I had read and reviewed Milosz for years - admiring his fusion of the spiritual and the political, the classical and the romantic, the theological and the erotic, the traditional and the experimental - it was his late, long-range, mellow collections Provinces and Facing the River that provided me with the key to this mesmerising genius who ‘contains multitudes’. No poet conveys more poignantly what it means for time to pass and for people to pass away and be forgotten. Doubtless his desperate need to recollect friends and acquaintances is related to his pain at having watched the wartime dead and exterminated become mere statistics in history books.
For reasons not unconnected, I presume, with his own miraculous survival through war and exile as man and artist, Milosz has a fixation on the notion that the poet must give praise; he is stone deaf to the celebratory note which Philip Larkin secretes like a small yes even within his bleakest poems (and could it be that Milosz is deaf to the elegiac note piercing his own eulogies?). Poets - if they are to be at all capable of bearing the full burden of truth about the world - must accept that many things about life demand rueful lamentation more than smug celebration. It is liberating, even consoling, to depict things as they are; to rinse the world in rose water before you write is to bear false witness. Milosz’s poems know this, even when their author seems in denial.
The role of metaphor seems central to your poetry, which is permeated by images intensified by unusual associations. Very often, this is filtered by a subtle, melancholy irony. How do you relate to the great Metaphysical poets?
Image by association is exactly right. Whenever I read a poet who is strong on imagery, my eyes stand to attention: further evidence of my visual art bias, no doubt, and another reason for my affinity with Holub (an imagistic genius). As for the Metaphysicals, I’d read little else if I were to - as we say at work - prioritise.
And to finish off, if you had to choose three works of art – a work of literature, a painting or sculpture, and a piece of music – what would they be?
At a time in the 1990s when I specialised in Customs ‘restrictions and prohibitions’, I was despatched to an EU seminar in Seville for training on how to prevent smuggling of endangered creatures and plants. On the eve of the seminar, I visited the Fine Arts Museum where - completely unprepared for the impact Zurbarán’s paintings would make - the stiffly starched folds of the white Carthusian habits and the stillness of the still-life elements in his ‘Saint Hugo in the Refectory’ overwhelmed me. I knew I stood in the presence of a great master, the equal of Velázquez, far superior to Murillo. Some years ago, when Waterstone’s bookshop remained open for 24 hours and offered substantial discounts for anyone insane or insomniac enough to make a purchase in the early hours, I triumphantly acquired - under cover of darkness, it seemed - a book of Zurbarán reproductions at approximately 2.20 a.m. Only when I subsequently re-read Louis MacNeice’s grossly underrated autobiography, The Strings Are False, did I recall that he too had passed through the Fine Arts Museum of Seville, proclaiming Zurbarán a ‘revelation’ (definitely the mot juste).
Music is essential to me only in the small hours, when the business of the day is completed. The neighbouring houses have dimmed or darkened. Cars are reunited with their driveways. There is an illusion of being allowed backstage in the world, of having the planet to oneself. The late news has been told and the future weather has been foretold. All my books and papers are tidied away (a daily ritual I practise religiously). Everything seems to acquire a simplicity and clarity and agreeable melancholy. Now, I find that I am lingering over some rueful string quintet, or Alfred Brendel is drip-feeding the slow movement of a piano sonata. So let some Schubert lead me into a new day. It is 2.20 a.m., the Zurbarán hour, and the house is as hushed as a Carthusian chapel…
A work of literature? Where could I possibly begin - unless perhaps at the beginning:
My tidings for you: the stag bells,
Winter snows, summer is gone.
Wind high and cold, low the sun,
Short his course, sea running high.
Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone -
The wild-goose has raised his wonted cry.
Cold has caught the wings of birds;
Season of ice - these are my tidings.
[Translated from the anonymous 9th century Irish by Kuno Meyer]
This interview was conducted by e-mail in February 2004.
Elizabeth MacDonald teaches English at Pisa University. She completed the M.Phil. in Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin and is working on a novel.
Interview published in Poetry Ireland Review, December 2004.