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Sharp words from elsewhere

Thomas McCarthy

The Holding Centre: Selected Poems 1974-2004, by Harry Clifton. Bloodaxe Books, 144 pp, £12, ISBN: 978-1852249717

It is now generally accepted that Harry Clifton, recent Ireland Professor of Poetry, is a poet of the first rank. His critical writing and statements from the academic podium have been trenchant, unequivocal, and sometimes ill-advised. It’s been clear for many years that he has no conventional wish to make friends, but he is determined to influence people, especially those who intend to add their sod of turf to the damp wall that is Irish poetry. His career has not been without honours – he is both a Patrick Kavanagh Award and Irish Times/Poetry Now winner – but he has never received the sustained critical attention that his work invites. He deserves to be much more widely known, not just as an Irish poet but as a first rate practitioner in the broad English language. Internationally, his talent should have attracted some fair wind by now, some career event that would place him on a platform with Paul Muldoon or Eavan Boland. Such an event is awaited by all of us, of course; and this feeling of waiting to be called forward must be felt acutely by four or five excellent poets of Clifton’s generation. That call doesn’t come too often. But Harry Clifton has been marked from the beginning, I think, for some as yet undisclosed epiphany of fame.

Clifton returned to Ireland ten years ago after having lived that peripatetic life so well known from the biographies of Joyce or Montague, Beckett or O’Grady. Exile affected both his work and his temperament, feeding his verse with exceptional material and fuelling his mind with a missionary impatience at the Ireland, and the Irish poets, he had left behind. Yet from the beginning his poetry had a tone that was more world-weary than worldly-wise. It’s as if his poetry always knew more than he did – the sure sign of a good writer. Like a cranky uncle who’s spent too long in the tropics, he threw insults at every poet-cousin he read, apart from one or two glorious favourites. Yet, to tell others what to write, or even how to write, is a daft ambition: if poets don’t strike gold for themselves then they should move on to something else. The work in this new Selected is full of the most glittering nuggets ever exposed in an Irish goldfield. This material, or his use of it, is unique to him. There is nothing in it for someone else:

I have a seamstress, making a shirt for me
In sultry weather, in the months we are together.

She measures my shoulders with tape, I feel on my back
The cool of her wooden yardstick, and submit

To a temporary contract, binding me
To the new and the strange.

In a very real sense in trying to be a teacher, a guru, a method, Clifton has wrong-footed his own work and alienated a good many readers. Not all of us are born affable, as Ben Kiely used to say, but in this world we do have to live with many fools; and with the less fortunate poetically. We were all young once, it’s true, and full of religious zeal to save Irish poetry from its own limitations. But there has always been an extraordinarily presumptuous vanity in every modernist Irish project; from the self-aggrandising propaganda of Chevalier MacGreevy to the postdoctoral insolence of Beckett’s wildest pupils. The insufferable snobbery of the multilingual as they move through an asylum of provincials is never a pleasant sight: the fact is that no one kind of poetry or fiction should get permanent tenure and it is foolish to persist in a programme meant for others. Poets must save themselves. Clifton’s trajectory is one of the most stirring examples of how a poet’s gift saves him from himself. He has been constantly aggravated by his impossible ambitions for us all. This concern with the inadequacy of other people’s poetry, so often repeated, is really the stress caused by exile; the stress that accompanies an estrangement of great distances. The extreme cosiness of Irish poetry must seem like a dark betrayal of integrity when seen from behind the barbed wire of Mairut camp in Thailand:

In stateless space
That frees us, somewhere between
The absolute kingdoms of justice and of grace
Where a birdsong intervenes …

It was from that far distance of the East, and in the company of Thomas Mann, that Clifton first pinned the ambiguity of Western adventuring to the wall of his verse:

                                        Diplomatic immunity,
This is your saving grace – to restore mystery
To a common weal, and resurrect from disgrace
The non-political …

This poem, “Thomas Mann”, is cool and dispassionate, complicated and exact. Its superb technique, reminiscent of mid-Richard Murphy or early Thomas Kinsella, is combined with spectacularly new material ‑ the flames of the Tet offensive, hippies frisked for heroin, Thai girls and Buddhas – to announce a distinctive, sanguine, disinterested new voice in Irish poetry. With Clifton, Ireland was away and somewhere else. The effect of this poetry was electric and inspiring, especially on other poets, such as my fellow Waterfordman Seán Dunne. For weeks on end Seán climbed the stairs to my attic apartment in Sydney Place, Cork, with Mahon’s Courtyards in Delft in one hand and either The Walls of Carthage or Office of the Salt Merchant in the other. “Listen to this, McCarthy,” the young poet would shout ahead of his climbing footsteps: “First light steals / Across the metal roofs / In silence, reveals / You sleeping, me standing aloof.’ The young Dunne loved to recite in particular these lines:

We, in inferior reason,
Travel until we fall’

And for weeks on end a recitation of “The Walls of Carthage” replaced Seán’s usual party piece, his rendition of “Raglan Road”. What was so intoxicating was the sound of Clifton’s ideas, the music of the intellect, the inimitable tone of the thinking, as it found repose on the parchment-like Gallery pages.

Thirty years on, from the evidence of poems like “Benjamin Fondane Departs for the East” and “The Mystic Marriage”, it’s clear that Clifton hasn’t lost his touch. “The Mystic Marriage” is every bit as sharp, technically, as “The Walls of Carthage” and that first poem has this:

                   Unscramble the anagram
Of my real name, which now is mud,
And tell Jean Wahl and Bachelard, bien peasants,
I forgive them as they stalk the corridors
Of the Sorbonne, and the pages of the Cahiers du Sud.

There you have it still, the prosody and information, the knowingness and the rhyme. As Colm Tóibín put it in an Irish Times review, Clifton’s words “glide up and out in all their hushed and controlled beauty”. These later poems are certainly majestic, in perfection of arrangement and complexity of thought. The work from Secular Eden: Paris Notebooks 1994-2004 selected here is impressive, and haunting in its picture of urban endurance, displacement and night journeys. Few poets in the modern era have written so well of trains and stations and fewer still have captured so well the postmodern angst of night on the late train or platform. Trains are the true agents of elsewhere and disturbance in a Clifton poem, a world where the poet always arrives at “The end of the line. A flight of metal stairs,/ Surveillance cameras, walkways through the trees, / Political theatre, people at a bar / between the acts.” The earlier sonnet sequence “Trains East, 1991” is as impressive here as the first time it was published, chronicling as it does the oppressive grey of Europe at the winterish end of the Communist era: “History runs through them now like a train ‑ / Bad Schandau, Pirna, old spa towns, / Half-timbered houses, impossibly run down, / Sanatoria, coming to life again / After half a century…

His work accumulates like that, with ease and grace; the poet agitated at the bar but his poetry as poised as a ballerina at her barre. A good part of Clifton’s rage at recent Irish poetry has been his disgust at shoddy writing, at careless making; as well as a righteous anger when presented with much of the Irish sentimentality that is given a free pass by reviewers. While he himself might be accused of misplaced feelings, or displaced feeling, all sentimentality has been thoroughly rinsed out of his work. It is astonishing how that lack of emotional diarrhoea makes an instant modernist of any Irish poet, from MacNeice to Mahon to Clifton. In general, sentimentality like patriotism is a communal feeling, a memory of excreted experiences. Poets should always be deeply suspicious of this communal temptation to write what is instantly recognisable or shared: it leads to a plethora of eulogies, elegies, poetic poodles. Remaining at the periphery of these communal Irish feelings is part of Clifton’s equipment: his poems believe in being far away the way Yeats’s poems believed in fairies.

The Holding Centre, this newest Clifton selection from Bloodaxe, is a timely reminder that one poet continues to lean on the fulcrum of his pen, travelling onward to destinations still waiting to be named. With Clifton, at each arrival the plots thickens and the crowds gather nervously. Posterity’s timeless, and poorly paid, courier, Clifton continues to drop packages from the Korean composer, MacNeice in London, from Lenin and Tristan Tzara, before whizzing away again to put distance between his impulse to correct us and the homeland that fills him with disgust – as “The Canto of Ulysses” puts it:

Sound of a passing train at dawn
Through Umbrian fields, of wheat and vines,
Through cloisters and bird sanctuaries,
Feeding on overhead powerlines,
Obsesses me, with the need to be gone …


Thomas McCarthy is a poet, novelist and essayist. Born at Cappoquin, Co. Waterford in 1954 and educated at University College Cork. He worked as a Public Librarian for many years. In 1994/95 he was International Professor of English as Macalester College, Minnesota and Assistant Director of Cork 2005-European Capital of Culture between 2001 and 2006. His next collection of poetry, PANDEMONIUM, will be published in May 2015.



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