Poetry and emotion
For the most part, his name has become synonymous with sadness; not just for his searing meditations on love and loss but because his own personal history has been so troubled. However, a new collection of poetry finds Paul Durcan in sparkling form. Patricia Deevy unravels a compelling individual
PAUL Durcan says he got a letter from a friend, another writer, recently, ``... saying was the choice between love and fame? And I wrote to him and I said as far as I was concerned if there's a choice between love and fame, you must choose love. For me, there is really no choice.''
Just at the end of our interview, he says he has something he wants to show me. It is a tiny hardback volume about the history of quilting the sort of little diversion you might pick up at the cashpoint in a book-shop. As he roots it out of his pocket, he says he thought I might have asked about a particular poem.
The tea-cosy one?
Yes, the tea-cosy one titled Tea-Drinking with the Gods. In it he describes a desolate day which ends with him opening a plastic bag, handed to him at a poetry reading, and finding inside a patchwork tea-cosy embroidered with the words: CRAZY ABOUT PAUL. It half-rescues the day and him. (``I have that tea-cosy I should have brought it in.'')
The wee quilting book was also an anonymous donation. ``I have this on my bedside table and this was sent to me after my book Christmas Day was published . I have it permanently open at this page. I wanted to show you that.''
I read: ``It was not a woman's desire to be forgotten and in one simple unpretentious way she created a medium that would outlive even many of her husband's barns and fences. She signed her name in friendship on to cloth and in her own way cried out: remember me.''
And what is the connection between love and fame, a tea-cosy and a tribute to quilting? It seems that, as Durcan lays them before us, it is about inscription ways of remembering and being remembered whether in corpuscles and cortex or cambric and cotton.
Paul Durcan's new collection is Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil. In its range from wry self-deprecation to luscious eroticism to the searing fury of the long poem Omagh (one of a sequence on the North) it too is an act of inscription. Patrick Kavanagh is commemorated. So are Francis Stuart and Mary Robinson. The book has 11 sections, each a distillation from what were almost book-length collections.
``I've been at it for quite some years. In lots of ways, I was thinking of it as my last book. I'm not for a moment saying it is my last book, but that was a very strong feeling.''
Durcan is recklessly raw about what it is to be a man and to be wanting. He shakes off the lineaments of masculine convention and exposes need. He's a thin man with an expressive, haunted face, and it's no wonder certain tender-hearted women want to wrap him in duvets (if only of tea-cosy dimensions).
In Brazilian Presbyterian, the poet asks his young driver how he might imagine heaven. And the driver answers: ``Heaven ... is a place ... /That ... would surprise you.'' It is such an enchanting line I ask Durcan how he imagines heaven. Had I a better memory, I would not have needed to ask. In Christmas Day the character `Paul' says: ``My idea of Heaven as a man/ Is to be lying on my back/ Smiling up into the eyes of a woman,/ Her face latticed by her hair,/ Her shoulders braced/ As she squats in her starting blocks.''
`Paul's' creator says: ``Heaven would be making a home with a compatible woman.''
Simple as that?
``Simple as that.''
There are dark poems in the collection. One is about his death, Notes towards a Necessary Suicide. Another begins: ``I dream of my death/ As a young girl dreams of her wedding / The most important day of my life.''
So what about it then death?
He wonders what I want to know.
I wonder how he wants to go, really fading away at 90-odd, with a blanket over his knees perhaps? He looks horrified, but it's not because he desires something more dramatic.
``Like everyone, I'm terrified of death. Well, some days I'm not. No, I don't think I'll be getting up to 90.''
Suicide isn't ruled out. What halted his previous gropings towards the far side of mortality was luck: ``Just at the right moment, something has happened.''
But this dismal talk is misleading. Today Durcan is in grand form. He's in a pale yellow jumper and olive-green cords and he is quite happy to talk. While he does a lot of screwing up of his eyes to search for words or remember quotes, the famous singing swooping voice remains well within conversational limits.
Paul Durcan was born in October 1944 to a Mayo couple, Sheila MacBride, a solicitor, and John Durcan, a teacher-turned-barrister. Sheila MacBride was doubly related to Seán MacBride, because not only was her father, Joseph, John MacBride's brother, but her mother, Eileen, was Maud Gonne's half-sister. Seán MacBride was Durcan's godfather. The family home was in Dartmouth Square in Dublin and after Paul there was another boy and girl. (Both solicitors now.) In 1952, John Durcan was appointed a judge in the circuit court.
Because so much of his poetry has been autobiographical, readers know that Durcan's relationship with his father was difficult. He agrees that these emotions go back in time. John Durcan's grandparents were evicted from their holding in Mayo and his grandmother gave birth to her son, John's father, on the side of the road. When that son (Paul's grandfather) grew up, he made money in England and came home with it determined never to be poor again. He married a like-minded woman and they had ``about ten'' children.
Inevitably, the young fellow who was interested in books and writing stood out in the family of prospering bourgeoisie. ``There was a huge extended family, most of them lawyers. And from great numbers of them, from the word go, hostility which actually got worse over the years.
``Individuals inside this [block] were wonderful people, but it was a block there was only one value and that was money. And no matter what way it was dressed up or is dressed up the fact is that your worth as a human being was decided, determined and defined by your monetary worth.
``To this day. I never hear the end of it, to be honest with you. But the thing is, my father I didn't get to say this in the book [his collection, Daddy, Daddy which won the 1990 Whitbread Poetry Prize] my father was, I feel he was a kind of oddball himself. Although he wound up becoming a judge of the circuit court he although he in many ways allowed himself to be forced into representing this world I'm talking about he loved books.
``When I think of him, as needless to say I do one way or another every other day, he had passions for so many things. In the later part of his life, I think he read nothing but poetry. Now it was 19th-century poetry but still. Oddly enough, the more it looked like I was going to become a writer, the more he was against it. But had it been someone else's son.''
Perhaps a fear of his oldest child excluding himself from the professional world, his world.
``I've thought along similar lines myself a primal fear of insecurity, poverty. I think that would have been very strong.''
When he was young both parents encouraged his efforts. ``It was only when I became a teenager that everything began to disintegrate terribly. My mother, my mother in spite of everything although I am a major disappointment to my mother ''
Are you? I interrupt.
Has she told you that?
``Eh yes, I suppose she has.''
A Snail in My Prime, Durcan's 1993 volume of new and selected poems, is dedicated to Sheila Durcan: ``Who when I lost all/ Stood by me always ... ''
``I see her we're good friends.'' Durcan says when they meet he and his mother do not discuss his work. Their chat is about family matters.
As he reached the end of his teens, Durcan got into difficulties through his behavior. Such was his character, members of the wider family thought he should get psychiatric treatment. They persuaded his parents this was the best course. ``Some members of the extended family were persuaded into ambushing me on Stephen's Green. There was general talk in the family, with doctors and with my father, and to cut a long story short these guys just jumped out of a car and grabbed me and took me off.''
Over the next few years, Durcan was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and leucotomy wards. ``I think I was terribly lucky because I know people to whom much the same thing happened but they never survived. The idea was to just crush you, because I think the essence of being the sort of poet or the sort of artist I am, is that he or she is by definition a nonconformist. Not boasting about it, not raving and ranting, but just that is what it is.
``I was so lucky that I came out believe you me. I had huge doses of ECT. And of course neither my father or my mother would have had the foggiest idea. They wouldn't have understood what that involved.
``There were many times I thought my life was over. Over. I think that in the darkest moments the fact that I went on writing all the time it never stopped even though I knew that I was producing absolute rubbish. But then I was terribly lucky from the start I had great friends. A wonderful person like Leland Bardwell that in the darkest hour, the door of her house would be open to me. Things like that.''
Bardwell was one of Durcan's first writing friends. They met in a pub Dwyer's of Leeson Street, he thinks while he was still a schoolboy in Gonzaga.
At this time, too, he began to correspond with a promising young Limerick poet called Michael Hartnett. They subsequently met at UCD when they both enrolled to do economics at UCD. (``You see, economics then had a great mystique.'')
And then there was Kavanagh. Durcan, while still a schoolboy, first saw him at a rowdy L&H debate in Earlsfort Terrace. The young brats took the greatest of pleasure in needling the prickly poet: ``I felt something terrible was taking place. He was being taunted and wounded and there was total chaos and I was too young to understand but I was horrified.''
LATER, Durcan met Kavanagh in McDaid's and they became friends It was a good time to be young writer in Dublin: ``When I think of those days I really think mainly of sunlight, despite all. There were all kinds of very painful things happening, being the age I was, but I do think of sunlight.
``And then I had the great good fortune to bump into Nessa O'Neill, to whom I got married basically, thanks to Patrick Kavanagh.''
Famously, the apprentice poet and his mentor went to a wedding together on August 1, 1967. Durcan revisits the day he met the ``beautiful woman/ With long red hair, green eyes, freckles'' in a new poem, Waterloo Road, part of a Kavanagh sequence in Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil: ``There was an Indian Summer that year in Ireland/ And in October she and I set up home in London./ We lived together sixteen years,/ Rearing two golden girls.''
And that's about all he has to say about his marriage: ``I've tried to say what I have to say in my poems.'' In poetry and in interview, he has admitted to his self-absorption and drinking as contributory factors to the break-up of the marriage.
The girls Síabhra and Sarah are grown up. Interestingly, they have both pursued passions of their father's: painting and Russia. This month, Sarah Durcan's paintings were exhibited in the Hallward Gallery. Síabhra Durcan is a student of Russian language and literature. Nessa O'Neill lives in Cork with another partner and she's ``in great form''. Durcan himself, as we have seen, is ``on the road''.
He talks about his girls with fascination. ``To me, they obviously each of them is like a fountain, a spring, constantly flowing all the time. Everything is new.''
And they are his salvation, aren't they?
``Oh yeah. Oh God, it's you that saying it but of course, of course. I've never been able to address that properly. Of course. At the moment one of them is living in Dublin, another of them is living in Liverpool. Though at one stage, quite by accident, they were living quite near me - I used to think how lucky I was, I could call around just to say hello.'' He laughs. ``Might even get invited to supper.''
* `Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil' is published this week by the Harvill Press IR£14.99 (HB) and IR£9.99.
Paul Durcan will be reading from `Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil' in Dublin (Andrew's Lane Theatre, February 28); Belfast (Harty Room, School of Music, March 3); Limerick (Belltable Arts Centre, March 4); Cork (Triskel Arts Centre, March 5) and Galway (Town Hall Theatre, March 11). All readings at 8pm, except for Cork at 7pm. Further details from venues