The Poetry Interview: Bernard O’Donoghue interviewed by Zaffar Kunial

In a new interview series focussed on the poetic practices and influences of poets, Faber New Poet Zaffar Kunial speaks to Bernard O’Donoghue about themes in his most recent poetry collection, The Seasons of Cullen Church, which was recently shortlisted for the 2016 T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry.

Zaffar Kunial: When did you first discover an interest in poetry?

Bernard O’Donoghue: I liked learning poems by heart at primary school. I remember circling round the kitchen table declaiming ‘The Stag at Eve’ of de la Mare’s ‘Listeners’ for my mother to test. But when I was about 16, I remember sitting in a flat shared with my sisters in Cork City, reading straight through ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and being enthralled by it (at a stage when I was supposed to be a Maths specialist). I was taught English and Irish by a brilliant actor-director called Dan Donovan in Cork.

When I came to England, I read novels mostly – especially Dickens and Lawrence and, later on, Joyce. And I have been fixated with Yeats since listening to him being read by Cyril Cusack. That was the clinching point, probably. And then, of course, Heaney from the 1970s onwards. I like what Ezra Pound called the half-understood of medieval and foreign poetry: Dante and the Troubadours and the Minnesinger.

How do you know when a poem is finished?

I find that confidence that a poem is really, satisfactorily finished is rare. ‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned’, as Auden paraphrased Valery (according to Wikipedia). The crucial thing is the last line, which has to resolve and knit together the issues that have arisen in the course of the poem. As with readings, the vital things are the beginning and the end. You can put in a lot of verbal kapok along the way.

Do you have a time of day where you write best?

My best time for anything is pre-9am. My productive day is over then. I have a slight revival of consciousness between 4 and 6pm but I don’t write consistently enough to be certain. I think more important than time of day is the duration of the period for which something has been left unvisited. It is hopeless to come back repeatedly to the same piece of writing at any time of day. You need to leave it for at least a matter of days so that the salutary process of forgetting has operated.

Bernard O'Donoghue
Bernard O’Donoghue

And is there a place where you write best?

Always in England, where the gap to Ireland is widest. Mostly at the desk where I should be writing something else – chapters for books, for example. And in temporal gaps as well: the most satisfactory things are written in ten minutes snatched off from something else. The idea is to ‘steal up on it’ – like gardening. The assigned area doesn’t work.

You mention writing from across a gap. Is distance important in writing poetry?

Andrew Motion once said there have to be at least two things of some kind in a poem and that the poetry is the kind of electricity that passes between them (or something like that). It is hard too to write about the here and now. It is a matter of place and time I think. It is easier to write about a place you are away from. Not necessarily far distant, just removed enough to use the imagination in recalling it. It’s the same with time.

You had a very marked turning point in your life: your father’s sudden death, which led to your move to England in 1962. How much do you think this has affected your interest in divisions of time and place?

I expect this is quite common, but the change in my life that resulted from my father’s death was immense. If he hadn’t died, I would have studied Engineering at University College Cork and lived in Ireland for good, which would have been fine. But instead I came to England and have primarily lived there ever since.

This links back to the gap: if I had stayed in Ireland there wouldn’t have been a cultural and linguistic gap, or at least it would have been unimaginably different. When he died, I gained not only a new, rich, cultural urban environment, but I also gained the Ireland that is full of mystery and sentiment and fondness.

Bernard O'Donoghue is interviewed by Zaffar Kunial
Bernard O’Donoghue and Zaffar Kunial

I remember, in our conversations, you quoting the opening line of Hartley’s The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. ‘Migration’ is a theme in your work – and is a title of one poem in the new book – but, like Louis MacNeice, it seems the journeying is as much between the past and the present (or even death and life) as between places in your poems. Is that a fair comment?

About ‘migration’, you are quite right of course. There is that grand word ‘chronotope’, isn’t there, which collapses together divisions in time with divisions in place. There is a line I love in a poem by E. J. Scovell that does it very well: ‘So this is where they were, the old when we were young.’

I don’t understand, or believe in, the idea of the Time-Place continuum or whatever it is. I think time is just the measure of the movement through life, ultimately to death. Place is accidental. So, though I am always setting things in places, the places are only significant as pieces of experience – which is why we get so attached to them.

I like the notion of ‘migration’, though, and the word ‘philopatry’, which is the homing instinct of birds, like the blackbirds in the Ledwidge poem. Ledwidge writes about blackbirds and I like the fact that the birds that fly down from the Baltic are seen not as homing but (dare I say it, Mr Gove?) immigrants. And of course etymologically ‘philopatry’ means love of homeland.

That’s a very interesting thought – ‘place is accidental’ – and it links nicely with that epigraph from Basho which opened your previous collection, Farmers Cross.

‘Place is accidental’. A friend of ours was very keen to move from a lectureship she had somewhere and then got a job at Cambridge, which was what she wanted. When another friend met her, she was full of gloom. So she said: ‘I thought you were happy because of the move.’ She responded snappishly: ‘I said I had changed my job – not my personality.’

The Seasons of Cullen Church cover
The Seasons of Cullen Church

A Juvenal epigraph about poverty’s humiliations opens The Seasons of Cullen Church. Can you say more about why you chose the epigraph – about poverty – for the new collection?

My first collation for this book had a few more rural poverty items in it, so the humiliation of poverty (as in ‘The Mule Duignan’) was more prominent. It probably was a bit too miserablist, in the great Irish tradition: what Frank McCourt called MOPE – Most Oppressed People Ever. But I think the Juvenal insight is very profound: poverty is more manageable before it is on public display. If I had aimed at continuity, I think it would have been linked to that. But looking at it now, it strikes me that the theme is something like ‘shutting up shop’: the better poems (like ‘Connolly’s Bookshop’) seem to be about that anyway. But I wasn’t strongly aware of any coherent subject.

Funny you should mention Frank McCourt – he crossed my mind too (I love Angela’s Ashes) when I asked the question, but partly because of the wit and humility that also went along with his anecdotes and character-portraits and stories. Talking of stories, can you remind me of the story you told me about the farmer and his cows, in relation to the habit of saying things in a roundabout way?

Yes, I love Angela’s Ashes too. The cows story is: Heather asked one of our neighbours how many cows he had, and he replied (in keeping with the cultural unacceptability of boasting), ‘Well, I suppose in fairness I would have about sixty cows as such’, using at least four reluctance formulae – the subjunctive, supposing rather than declaring, and of course ‘in fairness’ and ‘as such’.

The first poem ‘Waiting for the Horses’ is poised beautifully – like so much of the book – between thoughts of the past and the future. And equine matters come up again: the tinkers’ ponies ‘stumbling blindly’ in ‘Ballybeg Priory’; the mare in ‘Din Beags’ that is buried in hard ground under the stars; and Pegasus in ‘Enif’, named after a star at the nose of the horse.

I hadn’t thought about the equine. That is very interesting! When I do think about it, I suppose farm horses were a major thing in my childhood – one per farm, ‘the horse’, distinct from the cows, for example, which were numerous. Also there is the whole paraphernalia of tackling horses.

Farm horses
‘When I do think about it, I suppose farm horses were a major thing in my childhood’

Can you say more about ‘Waiting for the Horses’ and choosing the poem to open the book?

Why ‘Waiting for the Horses’ comes first, I think it may have been suggested by (our) brilliant editor at Faber, Matthew Hollis. I like beginning with a relatively cryptic poem so that the approach to the book is left open. A very thematic first poem can narrow the subject, can’t it – and here the Juvenal epigraph does that anyway, doesn’t it, about the humiliations of poverty. Also, the idea of not travelling by train again is picked up by the second last poem about not getting away from the afterlife again – like Hamlet’s father. All a bit gloomy.

Can you tell me about where the intriguing title of your poem ‘Mahogany Gaspipes’ comes from?

‘Mahogany Gaspipes’ is a rather dubious phrase that claims to mimic the sounds of the Irish language in English. ‘Mahogany’ sounds, for example, like the genuine Irish phrase ‘Má thagann é’ (if it comes), but I don’t know about ‘gaspipes’. It is all a bit post-imperial and dubious. Some people ascribe it to Flann O’Brien, but I don’t think it was he who used it first.

Is that another kind of displacement your poems explore, the step from oral to print culture?

Interesting, I hadn’t thought of that. The poem is dedicated to Pat Palmer, a very clever teacher at King’s College London, who wrote a doctoral thesis on the representation of subjugated languages (like Irish) in the imperially dominant languages (English and Spanish) in the seventeenth century. Writers like Fynes Morison said the Irish spoke a barbarous, unintelligible language in which they plotted mayhem.

Bernard O'Donoghue and Zaffar Kunial
Bernard O’Donoghue is interviewed by Zaffar Kunial

The obvious question is: how did they know what they were planning in an unintelligible language? The bits I have put in are genuine Hiberno-English pronunciations of English names like ‘Will(i)am’ and ‘Jul(i)a’. I think maybe it is more to do with relations between spoken forms than print culture – though Pat’s book has a lot to say about print culture and the decay of writing in Irish in the Elizabethan period, the destruction of the Bardic poetic tradition and so on.

Talking of dedications many of the poems are written generously for people – does it change your writing process when you write with a particular ‘recipient’ or dedicatee in mind?

The boy at the gate with a horse’s tackle on his shoulders is somewhere in Wordsworth. The dedicatee of the poem is my friend Keith Hanley who is a Wordsworthian; he lived for a year in a small green caravan near Coniston, and I stayed for a weekend with him there. I think all the dedications are linked to the particular poem’s subject, like the language poem for Pat Palmer. Even the elegies: Mick Imlah’s association with sport, Seamus Heaney’s with virtue, and so on.

One of the many moving poems in the collection, ‘The Din Beags’, is about a family whose name has come up before in your poetry, such as in Farmers Cross in the witty poem ‘History’:

Magie Din Beag, aged four in 1865,
was lifted onto her father’s shoulders
at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral.

In the new collection we find out that all three of the modern Din Beags were childless:

… the nearest thing
to progeny was a young brother
that snow and lime blinded at Christmas
forty years ago.

Can you say more about what made you write about the Din Beags? And was ‘continuity’ across the collections something you consciously aimed for?

I hadn’t thought about the earlier occurrences of the Din Beags: indeed, Magie (pronounced ‘Mahgee’, stressed on the first syllable) is the eldest of the threesome in the new poem; it is she who was at Lincoln’s funeral. An early poem called ‘The Humours of Shrone’ was about the young brother who was blinded at Christmas; Magie is also the old woman who is roaming the quarry field at the end of that. The recurrence of the Din Beags (pronounced ‘Din Bjugz’, stressed second syllable!) is largely because our house in Ireland nowadays looks out at the back of their derelict house. Ours would be derelict too if we hadn’t bought it – very cheaply – and done it up (up to a point!). It is all in the parish of Cullen, of course, and in the fields I grew up in.

Yes the word ‘field’ comes up a lot in the poems. And really interesting that you said before that you write in gaps – reminds me of those memorable lines in ‘As if the Hare’:

… he loped into the field
Through the gap we’d made there in the ’fifties.

Very interesting observation. The naming of fields is the most essential geography on small farms.

Also you mentioned the quarry field in the early poem ‘The Humours of Shrone’. Is this the ‘pencil-stone’ in ‘The Din Beags’? (A pencil quarry seems quite apposite, if so!)

And you are quite right about the quarry: the quarry provided the pencil (shale) that was used to mend roads and tracks on the farm. So all farms had at least one pencil quarry. It was very hard to dig. In fact, it still is for modern mechanical diggers.

You spoke about gardening and writing earlier, and in your earlier poem ‘Stealing Up’ you write:
So I don’t plan it; I steal up on it,
Casually, until I find –
Hey presto! – the whole lawn’s cut
Would you be able to sum up what your ‘poetics’ are?

Very interesting – and of course right – interpretation.

I do have views about poetics, respectable or not: for example, I am pretty opposed to the dominance of formality in the definition of poetry. I like Yeats’s image, that rhyme and metre constitute a kind of ‘ghostly voice’, which you are aware of but not dominated by. But I do think that there are some formal and linguistic things that make poems be poems: the main one in English since the seventeenth century (and also in Old English) is stress or accent. And in all poems you have to pick up a kind of sound and formality at the start which becomes the poem’s pattern; thereafter you can see that the poem either abides by it or departs from it for some kind of stylistic effect. The word ‘dishevelled’ in the last line of Yeats’s ‘Who Goes With Fergus?’ – ‘And all dishevelled wandering stars’ – is effective precisely because it is a different register from the earlier language in the poem. But we have to have got the sense of what that earlier language was like to notice the departure from it.

I suppose the real poetics issue is what the poem (or poetry) is thought to be for. Why do people write poems? My view is that poetry has to pay its way: all societies have given it respect. But it has to earn the respect and repay a debt to the society that honours it. Poetry is a medium of communication; people aren’t just writing for themselves. If they do, why write it down in a medium of communication?

Linked to this is the subject of poetry. Cecil Day-Lewis said he preferred poems that were about something. I think that is right. In the matter of poetry and politics, I used to keep saying that poetry has to be political and take the public world seriously. I still think that, but I now think too that it is more gracious to see art, poetry, literature, all those things, as having their own value and what Seamus Heaney called ‘jurisdiction’.

I have often quoted my wise tutor in the distant past, W. W. Robson, who said some propositions are always wrong – for example the declaration ‘the buggers should be shot’. Such superficial expressions are not the products of thinking. Poetry has to be the product of thought and stand up to cross-examination. That is what criticism is. I am a totally committed believer in the importance of criticism. (Is that still poetics?)

What drew you to the medieval era of literature and how much has the literature you’ve taught and translated affected your poetry?

A very interesting question. I did medieval literature to begin with because of my Catholic upbringing, I suppose. I associated the serious with religion. And when I came across the components of English degree courses, I already knew the subject of the medieval period. And the subjects and authors I studied – the Old English elegies, Dante, Piers Plowman – offered pieces of language and thought that were re-workable as poems already.

Translation as you say is a very important part of that too. This sounds a bit pretentious, but what you are doing in writing is often translating experience into language by a process quite like the translating of a foreign piece of language into your own personal language.

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney

Your poem in memory of Heaney, ‘The Boat’, makes me think also of his poem where ‘a ship appeared’ in ‘Lightenings viii’. (I notice that it’s your version of a passage from ‘passus 8’ from ‘Piers Plowman’ so I suppose it has the number eight in common too!) Either way, it’s the best elegy I’ve read for Heaney so far. It’s also a fitting final poem for the book. Was it a daunting prospect to write in memory of Heaney?

‘The Boat’ also intersects with the title-poem of Seeing Things – about fear of water and the feeling of instability. You are right about attempts to praise Seamus, which tended to produce some such response as ‘for God’s sake’ or ‘God love you’.

It seems well paired with ‘Meeting in the Small Hours’ – the two poems illuminate each other. There are many other such pairings too (e.g. ‘Migration’ and ‘At the Funeral in Oxford of Darky Finn’). Is that one of your organising principles when putting a collection together – how helpfully the poems ‘speak to each other’, recto and verso?

The poem before it is a kind of father revenant, yes, and those two do go together, though I am not sure about ordering generally except the beginning and the end of books (or readings). Matthew Hollis has a genius for ordering and selecting; he was immensely helpful and influential here. I love your point about the number eight, which I will incorporate into the hypertext!

Which poets/writers influenced you most when you began writing?

The main one was Philip Larkin whose gloomy self-mockery was incredibly potent. He also wrote very well and clearly. The fact that his politics were very different didn’t really matter because I don’t think he cared about politics at all. It was a big, blimpish act – and funny. Another influence was Richard Murphy, an Irish writer who was very important in the 1960s and 1970s. He wove the subjects of Irish history into his poems, and created a clear and elegant plain style, which linked Irish subjects to the blank verse that has dominated English since Shakespeare.

How conscious are you of being an Irish poet published by Faber and all that lineage – MacNeice, Paulin, Muldoon, Heaney and so on?

Being on the Faber books at all is a great thrill – and in the footsteps of the Irish writers you name. My friend Tom Paulin too. I feel pretty well out of my depth but, of course, I am all the happier about it.

What would your ‘desert island’ book be?

A tedious answer: probably Patrick Moore’s (or someone else’s) guide to the stars – something else I have been too undisciplined to do properly. But maybe The Divine Comedy: lots of stars in that too.

The Seasons of Cullen Church is available to buy now.