Laughter lines that come with a dark side
Paul Durcan's verses provide plenty of laughs and reveal their author's private thoughts. Yet behind his poetry is the tale of a man who struggled to deal with the break-up of his marriage and who continues to use his talents to keep his mind away from a distant past he prefers to forget, writes Ciara Dwyer
'When you look back," says Paul Durcan, "it's a strange way to have spent your life, doing nothing but trying to write these poems. TS Eliot said that 'the price (of being a poet) was too great'. He meant emotional pain, but I would add material pain as well -- plain poverty. But there are wonderful things about it too and one of those is friendship."
The 64-year-old Dublin poet sits opposite me in the Davenport Hotel sipping a cup of herbal tea. In a mustard jumper and emerald-green shirt, he stands out from the rest of the grey Irish crowd. If you didn't know who he was, the dramatic palette of his clothes would suggest that he must do something artistic; either that or he'd pass for a French man.
With his chosen profession, Paul Durcan is as exotic as an astronaut. How many people declare that they are going to spend their life writing poetry then actually set about devoting themselves to it, whatever the penury? This choice may have come at a high price but I, for one, am very glad that he took the risk.
The world is all the richer for this man's verse. Poetry can often seem remote and removed from the real world but the beauty about Durcan's poetry is that it is of this world and, in particular, very much of Ireland. Over the years, in his work, he has distilled events that have taken place in Irish society and marked them with verse. It may have been those poor Loreto nuns who burned to death in a tragic accident (Six Nuns Die in Convent Inferno). When the IRA killed two RUC policemen on Bloomsday in 1997, Durcan lambasted Gerry Adams and his friends for that murder in The Bloomsday Murders, 16th June 1997. (Down through the decades, his attacks on Sinn Fein-IRA's relentless savagery have been a constant in his writing.) When a man drowned, while trying to cross the River Slane at a Bob Dylan concert in 1984, Paul commemorated it in verse.
As he says himself, "That's one of the things about people who write poetry, you record things that you would have forgotten about, that I would have forgotten about".
With rapier precision, Durcan gets to the nub of things but he is no reporter, and thank God for that. Often, the poet adds his own magic realism and zany sense of humour. This is his divine spark. Yes, he can be justifiably scathing in his anger against the Provisional IRA, but he can go from sombre to delightfully offbeat. His words can make me weak with laughter. For that alone he should be canonised, because God knows you don't come by hearty laughs every day.
He writes of a nun telling her family the great news that the Reverend Mother is pregnant and they think that the father is a Jesuit, so the child will have good breeding. He imagines his late 80-something mother swinging from a trapeze in the kitchen and, of course, he reveals himself in all his loneliness, with his eccentricities and joys. He writes of births and deaths, love and loss, the happiness of marriage and the heartache when his own crumbles. To rob one of his titles, he is "crazy about women".
He writes of women's legs blossoming into thighs and how he was happiest when a woman straddled him, with her hair latticed across her face. What appals him most about Tracey Emin's bedroom is how similar it is to his own, he tells us in verse, having seen the British artist's famous grubby installation, then he elaborates on their similar squalor. He writes of his hair being "grey with woman hunger" and of how he cannot act on his ex-wife's advice of taking up golf and playing it alone because playing golf alone is an oxymoron.
Often, his poems are heightened by his brilliant readings of them, and when reading them it is hard not to hear his voice in your head, but they stand alone too.
There is a new book out, Life is a Dream: 40 Years Reading Poems 1967-2007, and it is sort of a selected collection of his poetry over that 40-year period. Fans and novices will find much to feast over in this book. Reading it, I sounded like Molly Bloom, saying "Yes, yes, yes", for all my favourites were there. And then there were some gems which I had been told about but had not read -- such as Making Love outside Aras an Uachtarain and The Man with Five Penises -- the latter being about the poet who caught a glimpse of his father in the bath and, with the reflection on the water, saw that the man was extremely well endowed and worried how he managed in public toilets, with all that lot spilling out. The young poet felt inadequate for having his meagre solitary member until he realised that one was the norm and that "one penis is more than enough".
In one of his poems, Durcan writes that if you want to know about Primo Levi, do not read a biography of him, read his writings. The same is true of Durcan. His life story is in his poetry. There are some flights where he goes off on imaginary tangents. You cannot take all his poems literally, but in the body of them it is possible to trace the story of his life. Sometimes it is easier to talk to him about his life through his poetry than ask him straight questions. Or at least, you can ask him straight questions but you may not always get straight answers. He is an intense soul, who often speaks with his eyes closed. But why would he be responsive to direct factual questions when he has laid himself bare in his poems for decades? All his life is there.
Paul Durcan was born in Dublin in 1944. His father was a judge, a stern man who understood the gravity of his job. This sometimes made him distant from his son, but he was also trying to teach his young son all the time -- telling him that "fjord" was a Norwegian word, while young Paul would ask his father, who was driving one night, if they could pass out the moon. Durcan has written about the often difficult relationship he had with his father, especially in his book Daddy, Daddy, but he concedes that behind all the constraints, there was love. He enjoyed a less formal, more openly loving relationship with his mother. Paul studied archaeology and medieval history then went on to marry Nessa O'Neill. They had two daughters: Sarah and Siabhra. They lived in London's South Kensington then moved to Cork. Their life together is in the poetry.
"It's a cliche," he says, "but the fact of the matter is that Nessa changed my life, then Sarah and Siabhra changed my life. When Sarah was born, Nessa was the breadwinner. We were in a small flat in London. Nessa worked and I was at home with Sarah, then Siabhra was born a year later. Everything changes.
"You're in the presence of that original lost innocence. Looking back on it, I was incredibly lucky. I sometimes think that Nessa missed out. She was out working and I was at home with the girls. I remember when Sarah was about nine months old and she was in her plastic rubber bath. It was 11am in this tiny flat -- we had painted the walls yellow -- and she was sitting there happy, splashing away, talking 10 to the dozen, and I was sitting at the typewriter.
"A couple of years later, we moved from London to Cork and Nessa finally wound up as the teacher in a Cork prison, where she was the only woman in the prison. Imagine the tension of going into an all-male prison every morning, imagine how fatigued she must have been, but when she came home, she would take over minding Sarah and Siabhra."
Durcan writes of their happy home in a beautiful but heartbreaking poem called 'Windfall', 8 Parnell Hill, Cork. He tells of the married couple smiling at each other as they ignored the phone. "That poem is a recollection of all that they gave and all that they were to me. I left this poem out of other selections because at the time I just couldn't face the hurt and the pain of it."
I ask him how his marriage ended. He suffers from depression and I wonder if it was all down to that. He tells me that there is no simple answer.
"Hardly a day goes by that I don't think about our marriage. Though our marriage ended at the beginning of 1984, when I'm talking to myself, which is what I mainly do, I put the breakdown of our marriage down to my stupidity. I was simply plain stupid and not mature enough as a human being or as a young man. Ever since Sarah and Siabhra were humans, I could see that they were infinitely more mature than I was. It was just plain as a pikestaff and that deepened as they grew older.
"Even now, I see myself still making the wrong choices. I don't know what it is. It ranges from ridiculous, naive to culpable. But that's an abstract way of talking about it [the marriage break-up]. I try to depict what happened in the book."
Alan Gilsenan's documentary film on Durcan -- The Dark School -- revealed that as a very young man the poet was snatched away and put into a psychiatric hospital under duress, where he had to undergo ECT treatment. When I ask Paul about this, he stresses that the film is Alan's portrait of him and that it dealt with the years from 1944 until 1971. He is not keen to dwell on that distant past.
"We are talking about things that happened 45 years ago... I ended up in St John of God in a ridiculous way. There was nothing the matter with me. I'm sure you saw the film One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Well, I was one of the luckier ones, one of the ones who flew over the cuckoo's nest and survived it.
"I didn't get a leucotomy, which would have finished me off completely, but I did get massive amounts of barbiturates, the whole Mandrax and every lethal tablet you could ever name. I think I came out of it with a kind of melancholia."
And how is he now?
"As of the past 20 years, the recipe for depression for me is loneliness -- severe, extreme isolation. If you spend acres of time alone, you do inevitably get down. Out of sheer desperation I end up listening to Liveline. It's desperation for the human voice and the upshot is that you get really down. But when I've been fortunate to be living amongst other people -- OK, I won't say that I don't get the blues from time to time -- but I'm blissfully free of that for long stretches. In the past few years I've been very lucky to have been given a bursary to the Irish College in Paris and to spend time there with great people like the poet Michael Coady. Just being in the heart of Paris and to walk those streets; God almighty, it is a lamp lit for lovers."
Getting out and about suits Durcan and he needs people, yet solitude is a crucial part of his writing life. As he says, "you cannot write and answer the phone".
Does he have to be alone to be a writer? Is it a lonely life by choice? He has often talked about being the marrying kind, yet his work is peppered with the theme of his loneliness.
"I know several people, writers, who are either married or have partners or companions and life is possible. That's the more natural way of things. After my marriage ended, I was involved in two relationships. One died a death after four years -- we were not living together. I was in another relationship for 10 years. I lived with this wonderful person for a great deal of that time but not all the time, because it was her house and she had her family and a lot of people coming and going. That also died, 10 years ago. And so, since that day, I have been absolutely alone.
"We're now getting really grim, grim, grim. The older you get, the worse it gets, no doubt about it -- unless you choose to be alone, like monks or other non-religious people. But if you haven't chosen to be alone, it gets worse and I think Irish society is very insensitive towards things like loneliness, depression and suicide. Then when someone well known, like Darren Sutherland, commits suicide, everyone jumps up and starts screaming and roaring 'Why, why, why?' And I just think, 'Jesus, how stupid can you be? Have you no idea the way people feel?' It drives me nuts because thousands upon thousands, if not millions upon millions of people in Ireland are suffering from these very things. They're simply emotional situations called loneliness and depression. If you're one of those people, probably a day doesn't go by that suicide doesn't enter the person's mind. It's as simple as that."
Is it like that for him?
"Yes, of course it is. That's why, like everybody else, I was just miserable when I heard the news that Darren Sutherland had committed suicide. When Darren and Kenny Egan were out in Beijing, it was terrific. We had a great time and then suddenly this. What kills me is that there is such surprise and amazement. Imagine a young man living alone in the south of London. Jesus, I mean, what a recipe."
Durcan tries to keep his own gloom at bay by forcing himself out of the bed, getting himself into a rhythm of writing. "You know if you don't do it, you'll just go down. If somebody didn't have something like writing in his or her life, I dare not think what it would be like then ... When all the solitude is said and done, I think every human being needs to be part of a community and I mean every human being. For three years I was the Ireland professor of poetry. I started off in Queens, then I was in Trinity and after that UCD. It's really so refreshing to be around students, and the staff were all so welcoming."
These days, Paul Durcan grabs joy wherever he can. It might be relishing a reading of his hero Michael MacLiammoir's All for Hecuba on the radio. It could be chatting to a friend or a stranger on the street. That to him is "wonderful and miraculous".
Or he might stay at home and swoon over the prowess of the athletes, such as he did last summer watching the World Athletics Championships in Berlin.
"Usain Bolt, this enormous, incredibly handsome black Jamaican sprinter, he ran away, ahead of everybody else. If he saw the cameras coming up, he'd blow a kiss."
Then Durcan leaps to his feet and stretches his arms sideways; he is doing Usain's thunderbolt pose and enjoying the theatricality of it. A passer-by gives him a peculiar look, but I shrug and smile.
How could anybody expect him to be ordinary? He's a poet. Thank God for that.
'Life is a Dream: 40 Years Reading Poems 1967-2007' by Paul Durcan is published by Harvill Secker, price €20.40.
Durcan will read from the book at the Pavilion Theatre Dun Laoghaire on November 8 at 7.30pm. Tickets €15 Booking: 01 231 2929 www.paviliontheatre.ie