An Interview with Bernard O’Donoghue / Martina Evans

Bernard O’Donoghue was born in Cullen, County Cork, in 1945, later moving to Manchester. He studied Medieval English at Oxford University, where he is a teacher and Fellow in English at Wadham College. He is a poet and literary critic, and author of Seamus Heaney and the Language of Poetry (1995). His poetry collections are Poaching Rights (1987); The Weakness (1991); Gunpowder (1995), winner of the 1995 Whitbread Poetry Award; Here Nor There (1999); and Outliving (2003). His work of verse translation, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was published in 2006 and a Selected Poems in 2008. Bernard O’Donoghue received a Cholmondeley Award in 2009. His most recent poetry collections are Farmers Cross (2011) and The Seasons of Cullen Church (2016), both of which were shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize.

Martina Evans: Recently in an interview with Zaffar Kunial you quoted Andrew Motion who ‘once said there have to be at least two things of some kind in a poem and that the poetry is the kind of electricity that passes between them.’ You used this quote in the context of exile and living in two places but I thought of it again when I read your marvellous poem ‘Child Language Acquisition’ towards the end of Here nor There. It opens,’The first skill you learned in our townland / Was how to sustain a double conversation / with a couple not on speaking terms.’ I was intrigued by this idea of ‘double conversation’ and wondered if this is in your poems too. You end the poem, ‘So there was nothing new for us about / The dialogical imagination. / All useful training for the life / Of letters, learning to distinguish / between revisionists in the horse and trap, / Modernists off to the pictures, realists / Drinking tea from a gallon in the meadow / and the historicists taking it all in.’  Are you talking to two different audiences? Or maybe even more?

Bernard O’Donoghue: I think ‘Child Language Acquisition’ is a bit portentous. But I suppose it is another tribute to negative capability and the ability to live in doubt – all that stuff. It is very audience-directed here though: how certain do you have to be about who you are talking to? Like the child in the poem, you have different subjects and interests with different people. I think there is no one ideal audience or readership – or, for that matter, critical method! Mind you, the horrible stuff about Fake News with its suggestion that there is no such thing as Truth or reality might make us pause.

ME: Continuing on from dialogism, recently in London Magazine, you said, ‘I can’t act or project on the stage…’ And yet these is a lot of dialogue in your poems, you have a terrific ear for those North County Cork cadences. The first time I read ‘The Weakness’ (published in The Independent in 1993, I still have the cutting!) these lines jumped out and grabbed me, ‘Hold on, Dan / I think I’m having a weakness. / I never had a weakness, Dan, before.’  You mentioned an affinity with short stories and you are inherently dramatic, like Robert Frost who famously said, ‘Everything written is as good as it is dramatic.’ So many of your poems could be acted out. I’m thinking of ‘The Poultry Instructresses’,’…huddled by the fire in smart coats / And ‘New Look’ frocks.’ And later with their needles ‘poised in the flurry / Of Leghorn and Rhode Island Red…while locals plunged / And clutched around the henhouse like bad goalkeepers.’ In a handful of words, you have summoned a whole group to the stage with wit and precision. And there’s Con from ‘Stigma’ leaping from the page in his one pair of sandals, ‘in which he trudged gaily / through the cow dung.’ Have you thought about this dramatic side to your writing? And do you think this might be something that you get from growing up in Cullen? Something that is intrinsically Irish and / or rural?

BOD: I like poems with a narrative, yes. And I do always fall back on events set in that first environment. Somewhere I said I was against Confessionalism, which I think was not what I meant. I like poets like Lowell and Bishop very much. What I meant was that I think poems should go beyond the confines of their writer’s heads. C.Day-Lewis said he preferred poems that were about something, not just examining the contents of your own mind. I think a distinct, regional language does help to externalise in that way – like the Irish use of ‘to have a weakness’ here – thit i laige, in Irish. I’ve never attempted plays though, even though that is the most externalizing form I suppose – nearest to the short story which I love. I can’t act; I am too inescapably self-conscious.

ME: You said ‘There is very little hell in my poems. They are mostly small-scale moral stories.’ in response to Lidia Vianu’s comment that you ‘could not really be farther from hell in your poems’. But I don’t think the Cullen poems are that idyllic. I know this world a little, having grown up twelve miles away from Cullen in the 1960s. ‘O’Regan the Amateur Anatomist’ is chilling especially when we know that animal abuse is often a prelude to human abuse. This preoccupation with the darker side continues through all your books, the poems which describe hare coursing are almost unbearable. ‘Stigma.’ is a terrific protest against the hellish lives of some workmen and servants in Ireland in the twentieth century and their present-day counterparts. Could your return to Cullen in the 1950s be some kind of pilgrimage of reckoning also? It’s not an Inferno because the poems are full of light and wonder too. Your Cullen reminds me a little of The Gospel of St Thomas when it says that heaven is spread upon the earth and we can’t see it. When we look back that is clearer. And if Heaven is there, maybe hell as well?

BOD: The Cullen poems are certainly not idyllic – they start from an impoverished Ireland in the 1950s, at the end of the Economic War. And there was a lot of animal cruelty, like in ‘O’Regan’. Hare-coursing was a big problem. We used to get the afternoon off school in Millstreet to watch the Coursing. Some of my favourite people in the parish were into ‘dogs and horses’, as Frank O’Connor says in ‘The Holy Door’. They used to man the collection for the Coursing Club at the church door once a year. I remember still the misery of walking past them without contributing. But of course, the practice was barbaric, like a lot of ‘traditional sports’. Some people remembered cock-fighting, not long before my time. We had a kind of particular conflict because we used to get Enid Blyton-type books about the countryside from our grandmother and aunt in Manchester, and they had a very different take from the difficult farming world of that time in North Cork.

ME: It’s hard to find a new question for you on the subject of distance and travel and living in two places at once – and as I was typing, I noticed that I’d written ‘living in two places at once’ which is not really true, is it? Maybe I could use my ‘slip’ to ask the question. Is an exile in some sense living in two places at once?  Is it the ‘here nor there’ you’ve written about so beautifully in your third volume? I know that you’ve also said that you quite like being ‘here nor there’. Do you think you would have written if you hadn’t left Ireland?

BOD: ‘Living in two places at once’ is a very good way of putting it. Back to the dialogism again! Exile is living in two places, literally and mentally I suppose. And, as you say, there are comforts in that. You can always withdraw to the other place! I’m not sure that it’s not possible to step in the same river twice; in practice I think you can come close to returning to the absent place. I found the ideal place of the past a prompt to write about it, or at least to recapture it, so maybe I wouldn’t have written if I’d stayed in Ireland. Would you?

ME: Unlike you, I came to London of my own volition as a young adult and the writing happened soon after that. I feel that I would never have written at the other side of the Irish Sea although my father died the year I left which was another significant factor. Both events have the effect of creating distance but there is a sense of never being able to really go home again. Would you agree?

BOD: We have a lot in common there, yes. I came to Manchester at 16 when my mother returned there after my father died very suddenly. It was very complicated; I liked living in the city which was a further development of the move from the countryside to go to school in Cork city the year before. But it had to be set against the rupture of a major part of my life: my father, country living, the whole world of Ireland and Irishness. The previous year in Cork city had launched me towards the literary life, being taught at Pres by the great actor / teacher Dan Donovan. Not that I started writing: I wouldn’t have dreamt of that; but I read a lot. Certainly, living in England made me concentrate a lot on Irish literature: ‘Home thoughts from abroad’, I suppose. I exchanged letters in Irish with my sister Margaret at UCC for the first two years in England: writing of a kind. I suppose.

ME: Writing seemed an impossibly wild idea back then. I was actually hoping to be an academic but Open University and nights on call as a radiographer were not a good combination. Poetry burst out of me with such an unexpected sense of freedom. And speaking of freedom, there is tremendous sense of flight in your poems. It’s in all your wonderful bird poems and the fantastically dream-like ‘The Apparition’ from The Weakness which was inspired by a real plane landing ‘in an Irish farmer’s field / In the ‘fifties…’ reminds me of Heaney’s hangar poems. Even the car in the ‘A Nun Takes the Veil’ seems airborne, almost like a spacecraft at the end of the poem, when it is remembered as a ‘vision…humming through the open window.’ These poems are very dream-like. How do you like flying yourself? Do you fly in your dreams? Is poetry a form of flight for you?

BOD: I love flying. What I said in ‘Hermes’ is true: I feel safer in planes, especially in big inter-continental planes, than on the ground. Crazy! I remember reading in Ruskin College in Oxford once, and a witty mature student from Cork said to me: ‘Do you realise your birds are all grounded? Even your aeroplane is grounded’ (in ‘The Apparition’). It sounds a bit Freudian; I prefer your observation that they all get lift-off. I dream about more negative things. I don’t dream about flying because I like it so much. It is tied up in complicated ways with a deficiency of imagination.

ME: Ah I was thinking of ‘Hermes’ too which is one of my favourite poems of yours and confirms my suspicions that although I don’t feel so safe on planes, writers are always preoccupied with the underworld.

BOD: That is an extremely interesting thought: the paradox that being up in the sky, in a different element, is a kind of inversion of all that katabasis stuff. If Eurydice was trapped in the sky, how would you get her down! It is like Dante I suppose: upward to Paradiso or downward to Inferno. Both realms are equidistant from the real and the here and now.

ME: Visons, flight and birds go hand-in-glove with the medieval period which you have taught and studied for almost half a century. You’ve said that it made sense to you because of your own religious upbringing. That reverence exists in many of your poems like that fine translation of ‘Piers Plowman’ or the lovely ‘Madonnas’ from The Weakness. Do you practice your faith? Does it still make some kind of sense? How do you feel about a church which does not seem to be able to atone for the wounds caused by the lack of adequate response to child abuse?

BOD: That is true about the medieval. When I was starting on graduate work, I’d have liked to do Yeats, but I felt a kind of moral obligation to stay with the medieval which I knew of old. Not just for that reason of course: I loved Chaucer and the Old English elegies, and Dante when I got on to him. I don’t know if I actually ‘practise’ my faith, but it is very deep-rooted. I think the whole edifice of Catholic Christendom is a pretty big thing to overthrow – Aquinas, Dante, the saints. I don’t know how the church can actually ‘atone’ for its wrongdoings either. I am a bit anxious about the way that people who make self-denying and idealistic choices (which is where they start) are the most readily anathematised. Some of the best and nicest (and cleverest) people I knew were priests and nuns. That is not to deny the disasters of course: I am aware that I sound like Mr Cunningham in Joyce’s comic masterpiece ‘Grace’. I wouldn’t claim reverence though: more an admiration for people who take life seriously. Truth rather than fake news again.

ME: I agree about the singling out and scapegoating of the clergy which I think has resulted from the cover-ups which made everything so much worse. I, too, have known some wonderful nuns. I think that is one of the many joys of your poem ‘A Nun Takes the Veil’ – it utterly humanises that character. I have used this poem in classes for many years and everyone relates to it no matter what their background. It is so universal.

BOD: I am very honoured that you use that poem. It’s another received story: this wonderful woman from the Aran Islands who worked all her life as a cook in a student hostel in Berkshire. She told me in passing once that she saw a car for the first time the day she left home to enter the convent at 14. The rest of the poem is just a fiction based on that. It really grieves me to think of the hurt that the general suspicion and hostility of the clergy causes those self-denying people. But I know, I know: child-protection is absolutely vital.

ME: When the character in ‘Pied Piper’ from Here Nor There cries ‘Musheroons! Musheroons!’ I am entranced and reminded of Heaney in his Stepping Stones interview when he says every writer lives between ‘the vernacular given and some received vernacular from the tradition…Ted Hughes had a marvelous little parable about this. Imagine, he said, a flock of gazelles grazing. One gazelle flicks its tail and all the gazelles flick their tails as if to say, ‘We are eternal gazelle…Suppose they are in a foreign city and they hear a familiar accent, it’s like a gazelle tail flicking, so then the other gazelle tail flicks and thinks, ‘Ah I’m at home here. I am strong here.’’ That has been my reaction to so many of your poems but how does it feel for you when you’re writing them? Is it like a little bit of home, a charm or relic that you can carry with you? The idea of a mobile home comes up in several of your poems. You write a lot about Irish travellers and there is that ghostly vision of a ‘green caravan’ in the incomparable ‘Waiting for the Horses’ where the ghosts of your previous poems disappear and the poet himself becomes a ghost.

BOD: I think those touches of vernacular are like charms: like Yeats keeping a bit of the earth of Sligo in his pocket. Heaney is a master of it. It’s like the bacteria that makes yogurt! A small element that transforms the linguistic whole. My friend Denny Hickey (a figure of humorous wisdom who is hanging around in a lot of the poems) was always talking about ‘trace elements’ which is a wonderfully rich literary idea. What you say about mobile homes is very interesting too. I grew up with an irrational fear of Irish travellers, not yet grasping that things are arranged in the interests of the strong rather than the weak. But of course they are the ultimate figures of exile and displacement.

Photo © James Connolly

ME: When one writes about childhood and the past as much as you do, nostalgia is inevitably mentioned. Would you consider nostalgia the right word?

BOD: I am interested in nostalgia which is a great temptation. It’s an interesting word, isn’t it – pain and the return: the nostos like in the Odyssey. It’s not exactly home-sickness, and it’s a positive literary motivation in some cultures, such as (I believe) saudade in Portuguese. ‘The Mule Duignan’ is a poem about a building-site worker who has had to leave Ireland and can’t forgive the poverty of his upbringing. I think the moral there is that nostalgia is a sentiment only available to the comfortably off.

ME: In your Ambit interview you say that Frank O’Connor ‘deserves as high a place in world literature as Yeats and Joyce and Beckett and Heaney.’ Could you say a little more about this?

BOD: I think Frank O’Connor is the Irish writer most faithful to the vernacular and the sentiments of locality. I am prejudiced of course because he writes about the places I know best. You can really hear the accent in him, in stories like ‘The Majesty of the Law’. And the short story, as he said himself, is the form for which Irish writers have the greatest gift. Why didn’t he write plays I wonder?

ME: You’ve claimed that your poems are ‘short stories manqué’ and that your best poems are ‘half shrunken stories’. This seems to be a very modest position which I can’t agree with! It is true that short stories are very close to poems, closer than they are to the novel, in fact. Where would you place the novel? Do you think narrative in a poem makes a poem more of a hybrid? Why not have both? Yeats’ Leda and the Swan for instance, holds a sweeping narrative in a lovely lyric. I know Yeats was an early influence. (I was interested to read that you got into Yeats from listening to Cyril Cusack as I had the same experience.) And there is a lot of narrative with speaking characters in medieval poetry.  Your poems remind me of V.S. Pritchett’s introduction to Mary Lavin’s Collected Stories, when he says, ‘There is commonly in Irish writing, a double vision: the power to present the surface of life rapidly, but as a covering for something else. I would guess that the making of the Irish short story writers is in their extraordinary sense that what we call real life is a veil; In other words, their dramatic sense of uncertainty. It is present in their comedy and their seriousness.’

BOD: I am very keen on the idea of narrative in poems. Even short poems have to move in some way between the beginning and the end. Short poems, like Heaney’s Clonmacnoise 12-liner, or Yeats’s ‘No Second Troy’ have that wonderful effectiveness of a final line that welds it all together: ‘Out of the marvellous as he had known it’, or ‘Was there another Troy for her to burn?’. Both are new ideas whose meaning flows back through the poem. That quotation from Pritchett (who was a marvellous short story writer too – as was Mary Lavin) is very interesting. I think I am more interested in the veil than in the ‘something else’ – though I think the ‘dramatic sense of uncertainty’ is very good. As for the novel, I think very few novels end well; quite early reading a novel, you think ‘OK, I’ve got it’. But then it goes on for another 500 pages. I am not entirely serious about this. But Roy Foster says I once said ‘I don’t know what the novel is for!’ I don’t remember saying anything as interesting as that, but I am inclined to autodidacticism and I like to think I am learning as I read – probably because I have a terrible memory and feel I have to ration it.

ME: I agree with you about preferring the veil which is used a lot in the fairy legends. The listener is seduced by the performance while the subliminal message is taken in unconsciously although the exegesis can be very enjoyable too. You’ve spoken in a few interviews about seriousness: In Ambit – ‘I used to like telling jokes. I say ‘used to’ because I don’t remember them any more: and I think our condition is too serious for jokes just at the moment.’ And in your Faber interview – ‘I did medieval literature to begin with because of my Catholic upbringing, I suppose. I associated the serious with religion.’ What do you mean by seriousness?

BOD: Seriousness again: I used to like telling jokes and reading comic writing best of all – Chaucer and Joyce and Waugh. I love Private Eye; but I rarely feel nowadays that our condition allows for much laughter. This sounds very po-faced, but I do think we must take ecological dilemmas very seriously. We seem to be sleepwalking into Apocalypse, recklessly abandoning the future. The heroes of our time are people like George Monbiot and Mary Robinson.That’s what I mean by seriousness, and I am admiring of people who devote or devoted their lives to it.

ME: I notice that the subject of gardening, dirt under the nails and the difficulty of growing roses crop up from time to time in your poetry, culminating in that gorgeous Dante-soaked poem ‘The Payoff’ which stars the lovely Sister Una. I get a sense that you love roses. Do you want to say anything about that and how gardening might relate to poetry? And what do roses symbolise for you.

BOD: I do love roses – and no doubt that too is a kind of vestige of religious upbringing. Maybe add the primroses we collected for small, private May altars: ‘Oh Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today. / Queen of the angels and queen of the May.’ Lovely Sister Una is the nun in ‘A Nun Takes the Veil’: a real figure of sweetness and virtue. Side by side with seriousness, I admire virtue as an idea as I get (very) old. I’ve never felt it or exactly aspired to it; but I am increasingly inclined to admire it in people. Taking over from glamour maybe!

ME: In the same volume, you have a masterfully fluent and moving translation from the sixth canto of Dante’s Purgatorio. It made me hunger for more of your translated cantos. Hughes’s gazelles flicking their tails jumped to my mind when that ‘Lombard spirit’ drops his disdain on hearing a voice from home and springs forward, ‘‘Oh Mantuan, I am from your country’’. It reminded me immediately of Irish people greeting each other abroad. I imagine that might have been in your mind too? I also wondered if there are any present-day states that came to your mind when the spirit talks of his distress over the state of Florence, tossing and turning on its sick bed.

BOD:  I don’t think I am a naturally gifted translator at all, though I have done a lot of dutiful translating in teaching Old and Middle English. But I love that meeting in Purgatorio 6. That canto is one of the great attachment-to-place texts. It’s ok to feel emotion at the idea or look of a place. I am not sure about the places that are like Dante’s Florence. I suppose I think the dreaded Brexit is an example of that sentiment curdled and gone to seed – an attachment to place that includes jealous disapproval of other places and people.

ME: I didn’t need to read your Faber interview with Zaffar Kunial to find out that The Divine Comedy was your desert island book! Its presence is everywhere not least the lovely translations in Farmer’s Cross, Outliving and The Seasons of Cullen Church. Could you say a few words about what The Divine Comedy means to you?

BOD: The appeal of Dante, which tended to be everybody’s supreme book in the twentieth century, is hard to tie down. Dante is bitter and judgmental – and we don’t go along with any of his opinions, or need to. But he has an extraordinary capacity to describe and evoke what emotion is like. And his powers of evocation are amazing. Mind you, if you didn’t get Shakespeare anyway, that would be a competing choice. Or Ulysses. One thing they all have in common is some degree of difficulty: a resistant grain of meaning – Dante because it’s in medieval Italian, Joyce in Joycespeak, and Shakespeare in that rich Renaissance amalgam of Latinate and Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. It’s the language in the end!

ME: There are many theories about why we write. We write when we are in exile and that is true for you. We also write ‘because the dead want blood’ according to Margaret Atwood which relates to what I said earlier about writers’ relationship with the underworld. I’m not just thinking about the shock of your father’s sudden death which never left your poetry but the many characters from ‘the other side’ roaming your pages. And in your poem History, I feel a sense too of you simply wanting to make a record, remember what happened and how it happened and what was said?

BOD: I write, I am ashamed to say, because I want to impress people! Also, the distance people like you and I are from the central locus of our birth language, English, makes us want to impress in it. And there is what you say: wanting to keep alive in some sense the people and places and experiences and emotions we have had. Yes, leaving a record too. I find writing very difficult and unenticing as an activity. I’d rather do anything else – like reading or listening to music.

ME: You’ve said that form shouldn’t get in the way of what is said but it seems to me that you manage the two very well. You have written many lovely sonnets and your cantos are very fine too. I love the way your haunting translation, ‘The Move’ looks a modest headstone. In a chapter entitled, ‘English or Irish Lyric’, in Seamus Heaney and the English Language, you talk about the Irish poet’s choice between English and Irish traditions. Where do you feel you landed when you made your decision? As a teacher of English poetry and literature, did your ‘mixed marriage’ come as easily as it sounds on the page? The Dinnseanchas which was so important to Heaney and Kavanagh is ever present in your own poems – was that something you thought about consciously or did it just come?

BOD: I am not very good at form. The poems I am happiest with tend to free-style and conversational – though I like reading great formalists, like Yeats. I think too that Irish writers regard English as a second language, even when it is their first. That is what Joycespeak is. Interesting about Dinnseanchas. I am very attracted by local Irish placenames, like Ardnageeha and Gneevaguilla, and the way they link with purely English-informed names, like Watergrasshill and Coalpits.

ME: Could you explain for your readers how the place names, Ardnageeha and Gneevaguilla link with the purely English-informed names, like Watergrasshill and Coalpits?

BOD: It’s like Brian Friel’s Translations I suppose (I admire Friel hugely). ‘Ardnageeha’ means ‘hill of the wind’ and it is a raised townland, facing the west wind off the Kerry mountains. ‘Gneevaguilla’ (pronounced ‘Guineagwilla’) means ‘a gniomh and a half’: gniomh Is a land-measure, like acre. Those half-Irish townland names are very useful computer passwords I find. The way those placenames relate to the purely English ones is just like what happened to English in the Renaissance: words like ‘starvation’ and ‘flirtation’ which are half-Anglo Saxon, half Latinate.

ME: As an academic, you are a writer of criticism as well as poetry, where do you place these two very different forms of writing in relation to each other?

BOD: I think criticism, even when it is opinionated, is a kind of act of modesty (I often think there should be ‘Acts’ as declarations of other things, apart from Faith, Hope, Charity and Confession: like Modesty) which poetry can’t really be. I much prefer reading good critics, like Auden or Brodsky or Helen Vendler, to almost any poetry. It’s better for your mind, which is why I agree broadly with what you say here. And I don’t believe at all in the distinction between creative writing and other kinds, presumably lesser. The problem is that it seems a bit graceless to say this, or even think it. I’ve got away with palming things off as ‘poems’ for a long time, and I am very grateful for that.

ME: You’ve written extensively and brilliantly on Seamus Heaney and I know that you think a great deal of him. The more I’ve read your work lately, the more I see a deep affinity between you. Your poem ‘The Boat’ is wonderful, the best memoriam to Heaney. It reminds me of his ‘Lightenings’ poem about the monks of Clonmacnoise but also ‘In the Attic’. So finally, can you say something about what Heaney means to you and how he’s influenced your poetry?

BOD: I really love and revere Heaney. And I particularly love ‘In the Attic’: the way it combines Treasure Island with failing memory and death and going to the pictures. He is in a class of his own. Reading back through things I have written, I often hear the echoes and sentiments of his writing. There is a lot of essence of Heaney. And I am very happy to indulge it! I should be so lucky. Not that there is any question of emulation. But I think he is a good example, like people say about Hardy.

You can read two new poems by Bernard O’Donoghue in Issue Ten of The Lonely Crowd.

Martina Evans grew up in County Cork and trained in Dublin as a radiographer before moving to London in 1988. She is the author of eleven books of poetry and prose, including Now We Can Talk Openly About Men. You can follow Martina on twitter here.

© Martina Evans & Bernard O’Donoghue, 2018.