On Paul Durcan
I don't know if I could say that I love poetry. Or even that I like it. I do adore some poems, and others I just don't get – either their meaning or the message they're trying to impart. For me, school wasn't the place to fall in love with prose, plays or poems – a teacher I had throughout during my teens was so useless that the convent school principal allowed me to skip her classes for the two subjects she taught (which happened to be my favourites – English and Geography) and to study them in the library on my own. Which I did quite happily and relatively successfully.
But the result was that I left school with an allergy to the 'S-word' (I couldn't even utter Shakespeare's name) and a chronic aversion to Wordsworth.
Once I recovered from school English I discovered my passion for literature. Now all I had to do was to start out on my own path of exploration and education. Which I did, while commuting to work on Japanese trains in my twenties. Wilde, Beckett and Shakespeare saved me from the pseudo-life I was wading through in Tokyo. This literary journey continued for three years until 1994 when, on a remote station platform I answered back to a Yakusa (mafia-type) member who had been insulting my friend in his own language, assuming we couldn't understand. After the encounter I realised it was time to leave. Which I did, and returned to Ireland to study acting.
Ten years later, I was back at college studying creative writing at NUI Galway. One semester was spent reading and constructing poetry under Gerry Hannebry and Moya Cannon. I had been dreading the task of writing a poem a week as part of my degree, but these tutors were extremely encouraging and open to every style our mixed bag of fifteen students could pour forth. The result was that I was exposed to new poetic genres, as well as learning how to avoid pitfalls.
Around the same time I heard Paul Durcan reading his poems on the radio. His captivating voice inspired me to resist my attempts to force a piece I was working on into a metric-measuring, rhyming poem that wasn’t working. Moya was our tutor at the time and she told me to hone in on the naturally free-flowing structure. Up to that point, I had been telling myself that what I had wasn’t a poem, but then the sound of Durcan's reading rang in my ear and gave me the courage to listen to my tutor and my heart.
Durcan’s latest book of poems, Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being, will surprise, entertain and educate. I began at first to read it to myself but a force or a memory took hold and I switched to reading aloud – the difference was great – words and phrases increased in tone and texture.
I was shocked at the impact of some of Durcan’s personal revelations. The poem that struck most deeply was on Nuala O’Faolain.
Here are the final lines of Nuala O'Faolain – it's best read out loud. In the midst of it all
A large head-and-shoulders photograph
Of her laughting lustily
In the limelight of her fame,
On the shores of eternity.
I first read O’Faolain’s work when I was living on the Isle of Iona, escaping from the world and trying to deal with my life as a child-less Irish woman who was heading for the big four-oh. I was stuck by her raw honesty in Are You Somebody, and she became an inspiration to keep going, to keep searching. For some reason I saw myself meeting the author one day.
The following year, in April 2008, RTÉ Radio 1 played an interview by Marian Finucane with O’Faolain. As my now ex boyfriend, Tom, drove us back to Dublin following my entrance exam for University College Cork, I listened to the distraught pair in stunned sorrow. Tom knew by the way I spoke about the great author (and by the tears) that my desire to write something worthwhile one day would out-weigh any dream life we were trying desperately to construct. We both knew Tom was right, but only one of us was ready to admit it that day. Two months later, I tried to reassure Tom (or reassure myself?) with ‘We are more important than any writing course.’ A month after that, with my place in NUI Galway secured, I told him that I’d realised how incompatible were actually were. Four years later I’m planning my conferring ceremony without a single regret.
We need outstanding and courageous writers like the Durcans and the O’Faolains of this country and world. And I want to meet as many of them as I can. So I am very much looking forward to Paul Durcan’s reading at the Kilkenny Arts Festival this evening, my book in hand for the creator’s mark.