My Life in Books
Harry Clifton was Ireland Professor of Poetry from 2010-2013 and teaches at Trinity College Dublin. His poetry collections include The Holding Centre: Selected Poems 1974-2004 and Portobello Sonnets. His latest volume, Gone Self Storm, will be published by Bloodaxe Books on March 30.
The books on your bedside table?
Railway stations, airport transit lounges and the human uproar of public eating and drinking places are my bedside tables. At the moment Ted Hughes: Selected Translations and the late Deborah Tall’s The Island of the White Cow, about living as an American poet on Inishbofin, Co Galway, 50 years ago.
Your book of the last year?
I lived through the hot blue void of June to August 2022 reading, slowly, a fine poetry collection, Prophecy, by Thomas McCarthy. Part political and part personal, it gives equal credence to both realms and feels like the testament of a happy man whose unhappiness is for his own half-realised society.
Favourite literary character?
I had a DH Lawrence obsession when at university and fell for the Brangwens and Birkins, who were “passionate”. Afterwards I graduated to the wise passivity of Leopold Bloom and Tarry Flynn – though Ulysses and Tarry Flynn are really poems, not novels.
The first book you remember?
The Donkey Inside, a travel book about South America from where my parents had recently returned, a book so far beyond me I don’t know why I was given it. I “finished” it – fearing my father – without understanding a word (but see below).
A book that changed your life?
Two books changed my life. The first, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I read at 16, horrified by the meaningless slaughter of the gentle horse in the opening section, and by extension, the question of evil. The second, a Garzanti edition of Dante’s Commedia, given me by my wife during our wander-years in continental Europe. The introduction, a masterpiece of Italian scholarship, is printed upside down.
The book you couldn’t finish?
The unreadable Donkey Inside mentioned above, which nevertheless (the clothbound cover, smell of pages etc) led to my feeling, essential to a poet, for language less as a vehicle for ideas and narratives than as physical element in itself.
Your Covid comfort read?
When the shut-down happened, I withdrew library copies of plague-themed books, such as The Plague by Albert Camus, the tales of Boccaccio set in the hills above Florence, and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. I read the first, then began to feel what was happening around me would only yield its meaning years later. After that, I remember glorious weather, the silence by the Grand Canal, the late-night conversations of invisible voices in gardens all over the city, and no books.
The book you give as a present?
Fishing and Thinking by Samuel Beckett’s old tutor, AA Luce, a Berkleyan scholar and fellow of Trinity College. A model of pure prose, uncorrupted by bad lyricism, and a snapshot of a lost mid-century Ireland.
The writer who shaped you?
Wouldn’t it be nice to say Dostoyevsky or St Augustine? As we live in an anti-heroic age though, Patrick Kavanagh comes to mind, not as a great technician but as a local deity, someone who managed to evolve on a spiritual level as so few ever do, while remaining untremendous and accessible.
The book you would like to be remembered for?
I lived in Paris for ten years, having come out of complex travels of my own and complex ancestry on both sides of the family. In that decade of calm and happiness, a collection of poems evolved, Secular Eden; Paris Notebooks 1994-2004, which is as near as I will ever come to gaining a whole perspective on what has mattered to me most.