On writing ‘Exquisite Prisons’ & other poems – Edward O’Dwyer

Edward O’Dwyer discusses his three poems from Issue Thirteen: ‘Leonard Cohen is Dead’, ‘The Girl in the Window’ and ‘Exquisite Prisons’.

I was very fortunate to have three poems appear in the thirteenth issue of The Lonely Crowd, a truly beautiful assemblage of creative work, and I’d like to express my gratitude for that before anything else. The poems included are ‘Leonard Cohen is Dead’, ‘The Girl in the Window’, and ‘Exquisite Prisons’. All three of the poems come from my third collection of poems, Exquisite Prisons, which was published by Salmon Poetry in November, 2022.

I can’t really say when I wrote each piece, nor can I say the order in which I wrote them. I’m not that organised a poet, and I suppose I’ve never really thought that these details amount to much significance anyway. It doesn’t bother me at all that I’m hazy on these details. The poem is what matters, that’s all (I do remember writing them, thankfully), and anything else I can tell you about those poems are just things it occurs to me say because I mean to write an essay to explain where poems – from my point of view – come from.

I’ve no idea where poems come from, and any poet who claims to know is very probably a liar. Poems aren’t magic, though, and I don’t believe in the Muse any more than I believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. They turn up, poems. I’m glad they turn up. Sometimes they don’t turn up. These were three poems that turned up, and I’m glad they did. As poet Richard Halperin puts it, when they come to you, you just try your best not to screw them up.

When the title ‘Exquisite Prisons’, as a poem, came to me, it was already on its way to being the title to the collection. It had a ring to it and it focused how I was to look at the poems I had been writing. At the time I was simply writing the poems that came my way but that title was the beginning of giving shape to the manuscript that would become the book. It was then I became some bit aware of ideas there that were connecting poems that on the surface were quite different.

What ideas? I felt there was a strong struggle to and need to make a connection with other people in the poems, but that the effort was seemingly doomed so much of the time. What else? In the darkest of subject matter humour is never out of place, because humour, even a scouring or risky humour, should always be welcomed. Most of all, the idea that freedom is always to some degree a delusion insisted on being core in how I put the manuscript together.

‘Leonard Cohen is Dead’ is a poem I should start explaining by confessing that I do enjoy his work but have never been the hardcore fan the poem might lead you to believe I am. I deliberately didn’t write a poem about Seamus Heaney when so many poets felt they had to pay tribute to his life by marking his death with a poem, and I suppose that was because his poetry never meant that much to me. Sure, it’s brilliant, and some poems, like ‘A Constable Calls’ or ‘Mid Term Break’, I can plainly see are devastatingly effective.

So then: why Leonard Cohen? I truly love the poetry of Stephen Dunn, so why not write about his death in the summer of 2021? I might, later, but that poem just isn’t here yet. If it comes then yes, I’ll write it, and feel glad it has come. The Cohen poem, though, isn’t really about Cohen so much. Cohen is arbitrary. It could as well have been Milli Vanilli (not completely true because they are still alive). It’s about needing crutches, defence mechanisms, about needing everything down to the little fibs we tell ourselves to make life and ‘now’ that bit more bearable.

The poem is about the need to cope. Great artists were dying and Cohen was the latest one in a line of high-profile deaths, and his death became the way into reflecting on that particular prison of our own human frailty. We cling to this and that because sometimes we struggle to cope. The poem isn’t even about the relationship that the speaker of the poem thinks it’s about. The relationship, no different to Cohen, is a denial and denials are something we all get stuck in (and perhaps need to get stuck in).

‘The Girl in the Window’ is one of my favourite poems from the collection. It is kept simple enough in terms of language, maybe because the speaker is a child, but then I generally prefer to keep it simple enough, because some of my favourite poets achieved their style by resisting the need to be showy. The idea of the poem is in one sense the speaker’s failure, in his youth and idealised vision, to come to terms with sickness and death, but I’d say the irony of his supposed freedom being the greater prison than the girl’s fate is the more key idea for me.

Incidentally, you should read these poems. If you are bothering to read this essay, then for goodness sake, you should have read the poems, and if you haven’t, go back and do it. I’ll wrap this up now by saying the poem, ‘Exquisite Prisons’, is one that has no interest in being subtle. It comes at the idea of freedom and captivity in a most head-on way. Ireland doesn’t come off so well, I’d say, but to think that’s the intention is missing the point.

I look every day at Irish behaviour, listen to Irish talk, and as predictable as it is most of the time, when I examine a lot of it, and I do, it seems so ludicrous to me a lot of the time. Predictable behaviour shouldn’t seem so frequently bizarre, and yet it does, and that was the seed the poem germinated from. The idea of leaving is questioned. The belief that this is freedom is questioned. The idea that the best prisons are the ones we don’t ever know we’re in is there in the poem. I could go on and on here but won’t. It’s in the poems. Have you read them yet?

Edward O’Dwyer is from Ireland and is the author of three collections from Salmon Poetry. His poems are published in journals throughout the world, including The Forward Book of Poetry. His book Cheat Sheets, a collection of darkly comic flash stories of infidelity (Truth Serum Press, 2018), featured on The Lonely Crowd’s ‘Best Books 2018’ list. His third collection of poems, Exquisite Prisons (Salmon Poetry, 2022) is out now. He is the inaugural Poet Laureate for Adare, Limerick, appointment by Poetry Ireland. He is on Twitter @EdwardODwyer2.

Issue Thirteen cover image by Jo Mazelis.