An interview with Bernard O’Donoghue

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Bernard O’Donoghue was born in 1945 in Cullen, Co Cork. His latest collection, The Seasons of Cullen Church, returns with a compelling and simple diction to that place and time. He has published six collections of poetry, including Gunpowder, which won the 1995 Whitbread Prize for Poetry, and Farmers Cross (2011). He lives in Oxford, where he is an Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College, and is currently translating Piers Plowman for Faber.

AT-D: I was struck by a line in the collection’s opening poem, describing the difficulty of recollection: ‘like a green caravan in a field-corner’. Was that an impetus to write the poems, a reaction to not remembering?

BO’D: The poem is dedicated to my Wordsworthian friend, Keith Hanley. (The boy in the poem with a horse’s tackling is from Wordsworth.) During our student days, he spent a year staying in a small green caravan outside Coniston. The poem started going by train through the Lake District a few years ago and thinking ‘I must have looked at exactly this view before, but I don’t remember it in any detail’. I suppose the end of the poem, about not going by train, is both a resolve (recalling or failing to recall is too sad), or a prediction: how many more long train journeys will I take at this stage? I think I am over-inclined to the recallable; but then of course we don’t know what we are not recalling. Memory is fallible and highly selective.

You’ve written of Seamus Heaney’s ‘reluctance to be too grand’. Do you see a similar tendency in your own poetry?

Yes, it is probably true of me too – even if I were capable of it. It is a very Irish thing; but there is a fundamental irony, or paradox: by writing you are seeking notice, and you can’t really pretend not to be. ‘Fame is the spur… The last infirmity of noble minds’, and maybe the not so noble. Heaney was noble though: a great influence I think. He wrote about ‘Yeats as an example?’, suggesting that he wasn’t such a good example. I suppose it’s time for an essay on ‘Heaney as an example’.

Seasons of Cullen Church is full of gentle, sometimes undetectable flashes of humour: the playfulness with nonsense talk in ‘Mahogany Gaspipes’, the way you dole out your own Purgatorial sentence in ‘The Pay-Off’, how ‘You Know the Way’ interrupts itself repeatedly. Would you describe yourself as a comic poet?

I think humour is very important in the kind of poetry I write – a modest kind of writing, maybe in the cause of avoiding grandness. That is Irish too I think: the anecdotes I keep bringing up are either comic or tragic – or both. I think the humour is a by-product of narrative, like telling jokes. I can’t act or project on the stage; but I used to like telling jokes. I say ‘used to’ because I don’t remember them any more: and I think our condition is too serious for jokes just at the moment.

The collection is full of birds: native, metaphorical, mythical. Reading a poem like ‘Migration’, I thought of Heaney’s Sweeney Astray translations, the poet as bird. What is the resonance of this association for you?

They are very important in poetry generally, aren’t they. Various members of my family (my wife, my sister, my brother-in-law) are better bird-watchers than I am. But I am very taken with the idea of bird as soul: the medieval monastic poems which saw seabirds in places like the Skelligs as the souls of dead monks. And, of course, there are the Old English elegies: the wonderful birds in ‘The Seafarer’.  But also there is just the matter of taxonomy, categorising and recognising. I am not a good taxonomist by nature: I am better with bird songs than visual recognition. I think I am more responsive to sound than to vision generally.

County Cork, where you spent most of your childhood, is the setting for many of the poems. But the collection speaks of a mixed, international culture, shifting between the US, Oxford, and North Cork in just one poem. Alongside memories of Catholic confessionals in ‘A Sin of Your Past Life’ and Mass in the title poem, you have a poem entitled ‘Ganesh’. How do you balance this internationalism with your allegiance to a ‘local parlance’, the idiosyncratic language of your childhood foregrounded in Seasons?

I am glad you raised this. I used to quote – rather grandly – a Polish film-director (Kieslowski I think) who said something like ‘It doesn’t matter where you set up the camera, but why’; the objective is to represent life which is true for all contexts. County Cork where I grew up is the place I know and understand best – though I may be imposing on the world a rather premodern version of it (1950s). During the wretched recent referendum, there was a lot of cynical talk about the flaws in globalisation. At its most fundamental, a globalised, internationalist view of the world is essential. I really think this country – England – is in serious danger of backsliding into the kind of provincialism that most of the world has been trying to outgrow in a salutary way.

But this exemplifies the danger of preachy writing, something I have always seen as a bit of a danger for me. I am inclined to ‘poetry of the point of view’, but that has to be couched in a kind of terminology or imagery to escape pure ‘opinionation’. The Ireland I grew up in was not cosmopolitan; it was unduly monochrome. One of the pleasures in coming to England was a kind of ‘mixedness’. Long may it last!

You once said you were rather against ‘confessional’ poetry. How would you define that term and in what ways does your poetry pull away from it?

I am not sure that I was using the term properly – some of the poets I most admire and like, like Lowell and Plath, are strictly called confessional I suppose. What I meant was: the fact that something happened to the writer is not a sufficient reason to write about it. The event must have a more objective significance too. Here is an unseemly instance: at a poetry gathering someone wrote a poem about sitting on the Underground opposite a couple who were picking each other’s noses. John Fuller, the poet and Auden scholar, said at the end ‘What was the point of all that?’ The writer said enthusiastically ‘It really happened’, and John replied ‘Oh, all kinds of things happen. That is no reason to write a poem about them.’ But I still think too many poems are written in the real first person – including of course some of the greatest poems in the language, like Yeats’s ‘Among Schoolchildren’ and ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’. Those poems escape from their occasion into general truths: the dancer and the dance, and death. I think I was thinking of what C. Day-Lewis said: ‘I prefer poems that are about something’.

You’ve written critically on Dante’s relation to modern Irish poetry. How was the experience of translating him for Seasons? Were you more conscious of other Irish forerunners than in translating Gawain, for instance?

I wasn’t thinking of previous Dante translators. I did a Dante paper as part of a taught graduate degree in 1970 (based on very inadequate Italian), and ever since then bits of him have been more internalised for me than anything else almost. It is hard to explain why Dante, who is fiercely moral and unyielding, exerts such an extraordinary influence. Maybe with the Catholic background (which I am sure is why I became a medievalist), the Purgatorio is probably the poem I find most indispensable. And of course Dante is political and personal and verbally profound all at once.

The last poem in the collection looks forward to your translation of Piers Plowman, due to come out in 2017. What attracted you to this project?

Translating it as a whole is a tall order. Translating Gawain was difficult but kept moving along by the story, and of course that poem has great vividness and colour. Langland isn’t like that; but, as C. S. Lewis said, he is capable of sublimity which is rare. It recalls the old remark about Wagner (not very appropriate for him I think) that he has great moments but terrible quarters of an hour. I think the way the great pieces in Piers Plowman lift out of their rather programmatic context is a wonderful thing. It is unquestionably a very great poem. I am by no means sure that I am up to it.

 

By Alice Troy-Donovan


Bernard O’Donoghue is the author of six poetry collections, including Gunpowder (1995), winner of the Whitbread/Costa prize, and Farmers Cross, which was shortlisted for both the T. S. Eliot and the Forward prizes in 2011. This new collection of expert lyric poems movingly animates the characters of his childhood in County Cork; it will confirm O’Donoghue’s place as one of the most approachable and agile voices in contemporary Irish and British poetry.

The Seasons of Cullen Church, Bernard O’Donoghue, Faber, 2016.