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Paul Durcan. The Art of Life

Erik MARTINY
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Paul DURCAN, The Art of Life. Harvill Press, 2004, 128 pp., €12.65, ISBN 1843432196.

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1Paul Durcan has published prolifically over the years and yet his presence in critical journals is remarkably inconspicuous. Despite the support of such eminent critics as Edna Longley and the numerous prestigious awards he has gleaned over the years, his appeal has remained essentially popular — he has become the closest one can get to the almost extinct notion of a bestselling poet. Perhaps it is this perceived “populism” that has caused academic criticism to largely disregard him. His surface levity has made his verse seem light in comparison with the apparently more weighty pronouncements of his Northern contemporaries. Heaney's poetry is of course all about “weighing in” and he has thus been given the lion's share of critical attention. Yet Durcan's flippancy is no mere shadow-boxing. As a counterweight to Heaney's gravitas, he offers the weightless weight of sprezzatura. His abundant use of comic effects has made him run the risk of being overlooked no doubt because of the underlying suspicion lurking at the heart of academia according to which humour isn't really serious. Specialists of Irish poetry have understandably turned their attention to the socio-political intricacies of the Northern question as the current trend in criticism is justifiably tipped in the direction of postcolonial studies but again this should not exclude poets of the Republic, especially not a poet like Durcan who has from the outset been a fervent chronicler of the Troubles. In fact Durcan has written more extensively than any other Irish poet (Northern Irish poets included) about the nature of the situation in the North. To leave out such pensive, poignant, committed elegies as “Omagh” or “The Bloomsday Murders, 16 June 1997” in Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil or “Poem Not Beginning with a Line by Pindar” in Daddy, Daddy or “What is a Protestant, Daddy?” in Teresa's Bar is to give a very partial, one-sided picture of Irish writerly involvement with politics.

2Durcan's latest collection, The Art of Life, pursues his devotion to the thorny question of the North in such poems as “HEADLINES” but the quantity of his interventions has understandably dropped somewhat in the wake of post-Friday-Agreement Ireland. His recent poems focus more on the 12 O'Clock Mass than on paramilitary massacre. Durcan's jubilantly playful teasing of Irish Catholicism is also a staple of his collections and one never loses interest in the refreshing iconoclastic scenarios his imagines. One poem has a bishop asking God to change him “into a horse of a bishop / So that on the alter I can whinny / From time to time to let off steam”. This may sound irreligious but Durcan achieves the feat of remaining a devoted, reverent church-goer despite all his host-juggling — you could say he is a cross between Jean-Paul Sartre, Philip Larkin and George Herbert. The religiously-minded poems in this collection do not perhaps reach the high comedy of previous poems like “Priest Accused of Not Wearing Condom” or “Cardinal Dies of Heart Attack in Dublin Brothel” (Going Home to Russia) or the even better “Archbishop of Dublin to Film Romeo and Juliet” and “Archbishop of Kerry to Have Abortion” (The Berlin Wall Café).

3More often than not, the poems in The Art of Life aim to define the texture of contemporary Irish life. Durcan pursues the tradition he launched as early as 1978 of penning small nutshell poems aiming to encapsulate a given period of recent Irish history. By doing so he has contributed no end to what Craig Raine has called the O'Haiku. To “Ireland 1972” (O Westport in the Light of Asia Minor) and “Ireland 1977” (Sam's Cross), Durcan adds two more epigrammatic compressions here: “Ireland 2001” and “Ireland 2002” both of which measure the changes brought about in Irish society over the last thirty years. The first of these, a slightly enigmatic two-liner takes a knowing look at the gradually loosening mores of Celtic Tigerishness. As the dates included in these and many other Durcan poems suggest, the poet conceives of himself as an attentive chronicler of the fluctuating mentalities of his nation. However, as always in Durcan's work, there is a strong pull towards the cosmopolitan, a strain which draws him away from the slightly isolationist, almost little-Irelandist approach of some of his fellow-poets. We have become accustomed to his accounts of flights to far-flung nations and The Art of Life makes no exception to the rule: some of the more powerful poems of the sequence are set abroad in Italy, Poland and Japan. Durcan's devotion to travelogue poetry gives him a singularly refreshing view of Ireland too.

4His talents as a miniaturist expand to embrace the practice of the long poem when exploring unknown continents: the spinal cord of the collection, “Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzori”, is a case in point. The speaker, full of characteristic wryness, exemplifies the kind of bathetic self-pity that Durcan has honed to a fine art with as much gusto and appeal as Frank O'Hara. Durcan takes Shelley's despondent self-pity over the border of the comic so that it is never laboured or irritating. He is adept at drawing on the reader's compassion and pulling his or her leg at the same time. As Durcan enthusiasts will know, perusing his poems is always a very companionable experience. At times, he is able to defamiliarize loneliness to the point of making it seem almost pleasurable.

5The Art of Life contains some fine occasional paeans to fellow-poets, one of Durcan's foremost talents. To say that he is a celebrant is something of an understatement: Durcan becomes a latter-day hagiographer when it comes to portraying his literary friends. This he does sometimes to the detriment of intellectual complexity as his championing of the rather controversial writer Francis Stuart in previous collections has shown. But “Michael Hartnett, the Poet King” is a moving portrait of the late Irish writer that easily bears comparison with other recent elegies written in memory of Hartnett by such poets as Michael Longley in his latest collection Snow Water (also published in 2004). Durcan's eulogy, as well as the memorable “A Poet in Poland”, composed in praise of Anthony Cronin, shows how rich and tightly-knit the Irish poetic community remains. Durcan's ceaseless celebration of Hibernian writing is a feature that maintains it as a kind of literary coterie in which we feel included rather than excluded. Reading Durcan's poems gives one the thrilling impression that one is attending one of his reading recitals: one sits down to listen only to find that there are other Irish writers sitting on either side of us in the auditorium.

6All enthusiasm for Durcan set aside, when it comes to ranking this latest collection with his others, I find that some of his earlier work nevertheless outshines The Art of Life. While this latest collection is well worthwhile acquiring, his best work is still to be found in his sequence of father elegies known as Daddy, Daddy, for which he deservedly won the Whitbread prize. If I had to recommend a purchase for a library my choice would probably fall on that outstanding work, or a later one, Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil, or perhaps, to chart the evolution of this fine, university-neglected poet, his most recent tome of selected work, A Snail in My Prime.

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Référence électronique

Erik MARTINY, « Paul Durcan. The Art of Life », E-rea [En ligne], 3.2 | 2005, document 3, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2005, consulté le 21 août 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/568

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Erik MARTINY

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