Collected Poems, by Austin Clarke, R Dardis Clarke (ed), Carcanet / The Bridge Press, 573 pp, £17.95, ISBN: 978-1857548259
Austin Clarke’s life reads like a picaresque novel. It is possible to discuss him without making any reference to his poems: is there any archetypal twentieth century Irish experience which he did not suffer? Taught by John Charles McQuaid and Thomas MacDonagh; studious witness to a variety of sexual activities during his religious schooling; fired from a lecturing job in UCD for marrying in a registry office; left by his wife before consummating the marriage; commissioned to complete the manuscript of Pearse’s play The Singer in 1921; suffers a second breakdown that same year; emigrates to England, where he prospers and remarries; returns to Ireland and is partially disinherited by his pious mother; the subject of slights by Yeats, Kavanagh and Beckett; a writer of three banned novels; simultaneously the public face of Irish poetry as reviewer with The Irish Times and the Irish Press and broadcaster with RTÉ; celebrated abroad for his last prolific decade and a half; dies before the proofs of his 1974 Collected Poems arrive at his house in Templeogue. Now, thirty-five years later, the second coming of that Collected Poems and it is, almost predictably, another saga, this time involving two presses (Carcanet and Bridge), one institution (UCD) and a semi-state company (Bord na Móna): the result, poorly conceived and carelessly executed, means further deferral of the day of reckoning for Clarke’s reputation.
Austin Clarke’s poems knew arguments about redundancy and inadequacy from the outset. After the Rising, he inherited Thomas MacDonagh’s position not just at UCD but as the potential leader of a new generation of Irish writers. Clarke felt the pressure and wrote poems which attempted to knit together the “Irish mode” and his reading in the canon of English poetry at university. To do this, he wrote three long, occasionally narrative poems which have received an unusual amount of attention despite their obvious status as Clarke’s apprenticeship (as Thomas Kinsella calls them). The new Collected is (mostly) chronological, so they remain the first poems a new reader will encounter, itself a problem even if the short editor’s note quotes their favourable initial reviews.
Clarke’s first book, The Vengeance of Fionn, begins “Upon a stormful nightfall” and reimagines a Fianna story with a panoply of clichéd poetic effects. The poem is as keen to press into service the Celtic Twilight’s lonely cailleachs and bacachs as it is to cap descriptive passages with the kind of Keatsian epigram with which the poem ends: “O little wild bird of the air / Youth only is wisdom and it is love.” Does the poem have any interest? Its timeframe is interesting, moving from age to youth as it describes and then remembers, in flashback, the romance of Diarmuid and Grania. In juxtaposing youthful adventure with a more jaded perspective, it could be read as reflecting, as much as the equivocations of Yeats’s “Easter 1916”, the immediate and disappointing realities of Dublin after the Rising.
Clarke’s poetry, though, is haunted by the story of its reception. At the time of its first publication The Vengeance of Fionn was accorded lavish praise in the Times Literary Supplement (“like Keats”), The Irish Times (“Not since Yeats has put on his singing robes …”). It also occasioned a strongly critical review in the very lively Dublin journal New Ireland, where Clarke’s friend Joseph Campbell attacked it: “shambling along haltingly on the staff of others’ experience … This is a bad book.” The row rumbled on in the letters page for months, the poem defended by Stephen MacKenna for its use of Irish and Romantic sources, dismissed by James Stephens. Clarke was already becoming central to discussions of Irish poetry.
In 1921 he published two more long poems. The Fires of Baal again refracts contemporary Irish concerns but through a more unlikely myth. Its tribal wanderings and prophet’s vision of a promised future implicitly refer to the War of Independence. “A little nation watched across the desert / strange vultures passing into storm and God / Conceal the mountains of the Promised Land”. The archaisms have vanished but the grand descriptions remain an incongruous mix of borrowed sonorities and rough invention, “I too would hear the trumpets of my priests”, “desolate peaks”, “the dismal crag” alongside “the wine-bulged grape”. Clarke’s interest in the subject, “a little nation” without a leader, is obviously topical but you would not guess this from the Carcanet/Bridge Press edition which ends, oddly, with the first version’s epigraph, a quotation from Deuteronomy, and then inserts an author’s note (not placed in the back of the book as is the case elsewhere) which makes a misleading and punning literary defence for his choice of subject: “In defence of this orientation, this departure from nature legend, one can perhaps plead an Eastern tradition from Lalla Rookh onward.”
Clarke tried to suppress the second long poem of 1921, The Sword of the West, buying back copies almost as soon as it was published. After failing to do so, he revised it on a couple of occasions. Maurice Harmon has argued that Clarke’s 1974 revisions rescue the poem. They do shorten the poem considerably, but do not resolve the tension between the stone-dead literary inheritance of “druid mists”, “sacred wells”, “the ancient mystery of earth” and the more psychological interest in character and society, evident in the “hole and cornering wind” and recurring visions which afflict rather than enlighten the poem’s many “darkened minds”. The Sword of the West remains bluntly incoherent, but now to complicate the poem’s disjointedness the new edition removes the third section, “The Circuit of Cuchullin”, without explanation and transports it and its confused, recurrent allusions to “the echoing gap in the north” to his next volume, The Cattledrive in Connaught.
By the time Clarke published The Cattledrive in Connaught, in 1925, he was living in London, working as a freelance reviewer. It is a remarkable, groundbreaking collection, one whose shape looks familiar to any reader of contemporary Irish poetry. It mixes short lyrics with a single long poem and tries its hand at translation as well as imitation of Irish-language poems. In “The Pedlar” the poet tours the “twenty-six counties”, starting from the yellow house at Rathfarnham and ending in the empty fields around Tara. The book’s other personae, the son of Lir, Sweeney (making his first appearance in an English poem since TS Eliot’s Poems in 1920), and Ua Cléirigh (Clarke’s name in Irish) also recount other long, picaresque travels through an Ireland that is new and old, with Clarke foregrounding placenames (Firies, Luachra, the towns of Carlow and Galway, Magheraroarty, Cong, Tory, Clifden, Wicklow, Ballinasloe) and ordinary work (cattle-dealers, horse-dealers, road-workers, farmers, jugglers, thieves, barmen, tinkers, fishermen, tanners and musicians).
If the book ranges geographically around Ireland, it also hauls up various traditional Irish-language forms and images in famous poems like “The Lost Heifer” and in its recovery of figures like Suibhne and Mannanaun. Its originality can be measured too by contrasting it with the work of Clarke’s contemporaries and successors, who would use the Big House as a way of writing about transition and identity. Clarke chose the road as a way of challenging fixed conceptions about the emerging Irish state, presenting a mobile, restless world, as close in spirit to Walt Whitman as to WB Yeats. The long title poem is another version of epic, The Táin, but it departs wholly from Clarke’s early work: fresh, idiomatic and humorous, it is dramatic and clear in its description of Maeve’s pillow talk and its consequences. The book’s architecture means that the ancient epic echoes the modern poems, with its cattle fairs, pedlars, roads and drinking parties. It also extends itself allegorically, reflecting on the partition of the Free State when Clarke leaves the tale unfinished and unresolved, breaking off the story at the point in the original epic where MacDara’s northern journey to claim the bull ends in a riot. Clarke’s first serious book, The Cattledrive in Connaught announces themes and forms that recur through not only the next decade but through the satirical books of the 1950s, the prolific 1960s and the late flowering of narrative poems in the 1970s.
Pilgrimage was published in 1929, the same year that the government introduced a new Censorship Act. It exhibits the same thoughtful maturity as its predecessor and even greater technical variety and authority, but it lacks Cattledrive’s obvious enthusiasm for its subjects. Clarke again traverses the country, but now his journeys are marked by sightings of a religious rather than a secular workers’ society. Instead of comedy, the reader meets stricken individuals experiencing sexual and religious crises. The book’s personae include Queen Gormlai and “The Young Woman of Beare”, typically recounting her various love affairs and the punitive social and psychological cost of her pleasures. But here even the rebels suffer the pangs of conscience: the speaker of “The Cardplayer” is haunted by religion (“Patric came, without harm, out of cold Hell”) and desire (“The face for which a kingdom fell”).
In 1936, aged forty, Clarke published a Collected Poems, using it as an opportunity to (unsuccessfully) revise the long poems. At this point, he seems to have lost faith in the mythological setting of his work. He addressed this change of style in one of the seven new poems in the volume, a recantation which seems even more riddled with pathos for its adoption of a very Yeatsian vocabulary and tone:
unfinished what I had begun nor count
as gain the youthful frenzy of those years
A hedge-school for themselves and learn by heart
All that the clergy banish from the mind,
When hands are joined and heads bow in the dark.
Night and Morning is a various book. “The Straying Student” returns to the song meters of Cattledrive, while “Martha Blake” is a modern analogue to the historical women of Pilgrimage, a short biography of piety which registers the attractions of the religious worldview, seeing a church bell’s “echoes bound / in the chapel yard, O then her soul / makes bold in the arms of sound” before criticising its repression of other natural physical pleasures. The book’s variety may offer some clues as to why it would be the last collection Clarke would publish for seventeen years. There are signs in its poems that the variety would not cohere, that he could no longer hold together, in a single thought, contemporary reality and his vision of a better, older Ireland. He would spend the next decade and a half writing plays and a novel which would dramatise that conflict, though their attempts to polarise and dramatise the conflict also fail: the idealism of Clarke’s free “Celtic Romanesque” state had by now been irretrievably subsumed into the Free State’s Roman Catholicism. This led to cramped obscurities in the more religious poems of Night and Morning, which fail to return liturgical language to private and more flexible kinds of conversation. These poems’ failures are, perhaps, even more marked in the current edition, which does not adopt any of the annotations added by Clarke’s previous editors or critics.
Clarke obviously knew that his poems had reached an impasse. Two factors may be seen to complicate matters further: the Censorship Act and the death of Yeats. Clarke’s first experience of censorship occurred when the state banned The Bright Temptation, a light and comic historical novel which might now be classed as teen fiction. It was an experience which seems to have daunted and energised him. That same year, WB Yeats nominated him as a founder member of the Irish Academy of Letters. Clarke saw the new organisation as a means of challenging government policy on censorship, a matter which preoccupied him in his writing too. It is no coincidence that his poems and prose become increasingly tangled and polysemous. It may be best illustrated in an overtly teasing passage from one of his memoirs, A Penny in the Clouds, when he writes about a London affair with an artist’s younger wife:
His obsessive interest in Yeats is evident early on. He wrote about him, and his houses, throughout his life. He contrasts him unfavourably with Pádraic Ó Conaire in “The Itinerary of Ua Cléirigh”. Yeats identified with Castle and Manor, Ó Conaire with “hitting the road”. In the two poems titled “The Abbey Theatre Fire” and “Abbey Theatre Fire”, the latter begins, “Pride made of Yeats a rhetorician”, the former closing, desperately, “So, I forgot / his enmity…” “A Centenary Tribute” sees Clarke visit Yeats’s Dublin home, focusing again on his house: “Victorian … fashionably villafied”), while in “In the Savile Club” he has Yeats declare “‘There are portraits of me / In Liverpool, Birmingham, Edinburgh, / And other Galleries’”. “The Echo at Coole” situates Clarke in Coole’s “great Pleasure Garden” near where “Lady Gregory would drive twelve miles …/ to count the swans for Willie” before giving the last word to Yeats’s echo, which identifies Clarke with the word “Yew“. No matter how many times Clarke wrote poems identifying his difference from the Big House pomposity of Yeats, he continued to find himself, time and again, stumbling into subjects and modes which Yeats had already used. Yeats’s death may have finally allowed him to see whole the older poet’s work and the necessity of remaking his style. His preoccupation with Yeats, it might be argued then, led him to adopt a style so jagged and a subject matter so particular and historical that no reader could mistake the difference between the two poets after 1939.
Belatedly inviting his friend Seumas O’Sullivan to a party around 1954, Clarke writes: “I plead for my delay, the unstained floors and unhammered shelves, an unexpected visit from the muse after many years. I have finished four lyrics this week and a half one, and at the moment she is still at my elbow.” The resulting book, Ancient Lights, is as varied as Night and Morning, and it too contains some of Clarke’s best poems.
Its variety is acknowledged in its subtitle, “Satires and Poems”. In the “Poems”, Clarke relaxes into a more lyrical and reflective mode, as in the low-key reminiscence which opens “Respectable People” or his revisiting of earlier, more temperate dialogues between nation (or nature) and church in “The Blackbird of Derrycairn”:
Is whistling and the sun is brighter
Than God’s own shadow in the cup now!
Most typical, though, are the clever, button-pressing satires like “Marriage” and “Celebrations”, which subject the language of public rhetoric to grotesque, flyting transformations, flinging obscenities at the hypocritical Vatican flag in one, identifying marriage with shame and contraception (“Aye, there’s the rub!”) in the other. “Three poems about children” uses pious talk about Limbo, “Has not a Bishop declared / That flame-wrapped babes are spared / Our life-time of temptation?” to extrapolate a Swiftian argument for infanticide: “Those children, charred in Cavan, / Passed straight through Hell to Heaven”. These poems are fierce and full of feeling, but they too force the language into odd phrases. For every apt allusion there is a dud phrase or place-holder that jars or distracts the reader’s attention. In this last poem, why straight in “passed straight through”? In “Celebrations” why again in “Let ageing politicians pray / Again, hoardings recount our faith”, and how does that first line’s plainness fit with the hardworking pun on “hoardings recount” (which refers to how “posters remember”, but also how “financial savings tell” our faith) and how does any of this fit with the allusion to William Blake’s robin redbreast in the next line, “The blindfold woman in a rage”? Clarke’s satires are marred by such unevennesses, fireworks alongside damp squibs, puns alongside coinages (“God only knows what treasury / Uncrams”). Some poems collapse under the pressure of such combinations and nothing is left but the impression of a vague and righteous fury.
Clarke followed Ancient Lights with two further books sub-titled “Poems and satires”. Too Great a Vine begins with “Usufruct”, a legal term which the poem glosses in relation to Clarke’s mother’s decision to will her son’s home to the church on his death. It is followed by “Abbey Theatre Fire”, which not only savages Yeats as a rhetorician and mythologiser but seems to identify him with Clarke’s mother, stripping the son of his rightful inheritance. In this edition, unfortunately, both poems are marred by new errors in punctuation and stanza shape which defeat their arguments. The obscurity of other satires requires a different kind of editorial intervention, which is missing from this book.
Many of the later short poems seem exhausted by their subjects. They rail against norms, but now that the peculiar norms of 1950s Ireland have largely disappeared, the poems often seem thin, piecemeal, internally inert, monotonous and insufficient in their imagination. This is less of a problem with the long poems, which are not so crabbed in their construction. The same editorial garbling works against poems such as “Beyond the Pale” and “The Loss of Strength”, Clarke’s return to the long itinerary poem. “Beyond the Pale”, for instance, receives two dense pages of annotation in Hugh Maxton’s Lilliput/Penguin edition, although some lines are still obscure to that editor. Here we receive two lines and typos in key lines so that or (italicised in the original, probably referring to the colour gold) becomes simply “or”, while among the poem’s concluding images of metamorphosis, the “Stag of Leiterlone” becomes the “Stay of Leiterlone”. The editor also mislays the sense of the less effective “The Loss of Strength”: “an” becomes “and”; “all” becomes “are”; punctuation goes astray. The poem’s awkwardly regular stanza shape poses enough problems without typos: each stanza is twelve lines long and ends with a short summary six-syllable statement which encourages Clarke to both pad some lines with details and to import the sermonising pedantry of the satires. The poem does have its moments, and local and historical specificity do not limit their pertinence:
Too much: yet on the Hill of Allen
The blasters are at work. Gallon
By gallon our roads go on. Stonecrushers
Must feed them. Fionn hunted here, Oisin
Complained of age. I think of rushed bones,
Bogland, in furnaces, grown greener
Now. Hell-fire rakes have spirited these heirs.
Always in debt to banks, they plan more buildings,
Made reckless by the vow of poverty,
Pile up the sums that burning souls have willed
To them in clock-tower, high walls, such debris;
Teach alms to gamble, while agents share the kitty.
The long poems of this period stand up better than the short ones. They are rooted in the concerns of the earlier work but they are now grounded in the historical moment, are more rhythmically inventive and surer in their detours into and out of the blind alleys of their explosive asides. None is entirely successful. In “Forget Me Not” (1962), for instance, Clarke still cannot help the descent of the ríastrad, or battle fury, when confronted by the illogical hypocrisy of the powerful, and the poem ties itself up in knots as he rages and hammers on. By Flight to Africa, Clarke tries to rein in or manoeuvre this rage. Poems like “The Knock” and “From a Diary of Dreams” mock his own authority: “My youth comes back in a lawless dream. Those hair restorers / Have dated Austin,” he writes in the latter, an enjoyably lurid autobiography which sets the template for many of the digressive and occasional long poems of the later work. It is also a poem where Clarke discusses sex on his own terms, with only occasional muttered asides about the church’s cruel proscriptions. “Eighteenth-century Harp Songs” and “Richmond Hill” are likewise enjoyable romps, much freer and easier in their discussion of sex (often al fresco) than in previous work. Formal requirements still hamper the poems; the latter’s limerick-style combinations of run-on lines and full rhyme result in a characteristically disjointed turn at lines 5-6:
And the river below was still.
People went by
but the grass was high
Where my darling turned to bill
Her lipstick and my knees
Capped hers under the trees.
Could I do less
When her cotton dress
Was printed Do as you please?
Chief among them is Mnemosyne Lay in Dust (1966), a book-length sequence which was long in the making and can be read (alongside “The Great Hunger”) as an autobiographical account of a breakdown (and of Clarke’s subsequent recovery in Grangegorman hospital) and as a response to the chaotic and destructive emergence of the new state. These poems’ grotesque humiliations and their refusals to mythologise their protagonists or console them with larger narratives of redemption should be seen to define post-Yeatsian Irish literature as much as Joyce or Beckett or McGahern.
Few of the later satires match the uncluttered tone of “The New Cathedral in Galway” “A building ugly as sin / To prove the boys sincere / And still a decent crowd”. The longer poems, many written on Clarke’s trips to international writers’ conferences or on travels sponsored by prizes or American universities, take the form of portraits, travel diaries and relaxed autobiography. Most have spots of interest but repeat themselves or one another or fail to sustain momentum or resist a series of asides. Dublin’s streets and streetlife are a new subject and it is possible to see how they might have seeded or at least provided a foil for the later Dublin poetry of Thomas Kinsella and Peter Sirr, much as the late tales must have inspired the long poems of Michael Hartnett. Clarke is stricter and plainer and better in these tales and litanies, in the non-autobiographical poems such as “Paupers” and “The House Breakers”, the translations of Ó Bruadair and the grotesque comedy of “The Last Snake in Ireland” and “Phallomeda” (albeit the “Firbolg” become the “Firbog” in this edition). “The Wooing of Becfola” and “Tiresias” are more florid but are written in the same fiery vein, as is “The Healing of Mis”, which also acts as a companion piece to The Sword of the West in its depiction of sexual and mental good health.
“The Healing of Mis” is from Clarke’s excellent penultimate collection, Orphide (1971). That book consists entirely of longer narratives, which comprise a newly tense and open-ended poetics of disenchantment. The poet is obviously stage-managing the action to favour his own anti-Catholic feelings, but there is room now for sympathy and confusion in the poem’s subjects. These are poems which, again, stir the conscience. “Orphide” strips away illusions about Bernadette at Lourdes by filling in her family background (rather than the Virgin’s); in “The Quarry” a priest becomes an unwitting party to the staging of the Virgin Mary’s apparition in Donegal (and in this edition finds himself among hight rather than “high nettles” at the end of the poem); “The Dilemma of Iphis” answers a mother’s prayers by transforming Iphis in time for his wedding; “The Trees of the Forest” returns to the Sweeney myth with terrific poise. It reminds the reader too of how often Clarke chooses the unhoused and aerial perspective for his poems, from these late narratives through the joy in air travel so evident in middle period poems like “Over Wales” (presented here, typically, with one correction and one typo) to the early itinerary poems.
Austin Clarke’s poems argue in favour of the road and not the house, the body and not the soul, the open air and not the state; the unevenness of the work is perhaps due to its weakness for simple antagonism. This new edition accentuates that unevenness with its paucity of notes and its many errors. So, for the moment, Clarke remains beyond the pale. How might this change? Most of all, Austin Clarke needs a biography which would provide more context for the work, a biography which would look at his relationships with the women who are the subjects of many of his poems, his mother and sister as much as his lovers and wives. There would be much of interest too in his life on Grub Street and, later, the Palace Bar, his encounters and relationships with Yeats, Kavanagh, Frank O’Connor, Beckett and MacNeice (with whom he travelled to Yeats’s reburial). And behind it all, there is Clarke’s experience of and identification with the nascent and developing Irish state. After such an appraisal, it might be time to consider a new, corrected and annotated Selected and Collected Poems.
John McAuliffe’s second book of poems is Next Door (Gallery, 2007). He lives in Manchester where he co-directs the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing and edits The Manchester Review.