Harry Clifton talks to us about his time as Ireland Chair of Poetry. He will appear alongside former and current Ireland Chairs of Poetry, Michael Longley and Paula Meehan, in conversation with Arminta Wallace at our The Poet’s Chair event.
Q: You’ve had an extensive career as a poet, publishing numerous collections – did your time as Ireland Professor of Poetry help you discover anything new or unexpected?
You are always hoping to connect with the young. I found that the most gratifying from a human angle – their anxiety to be part of a small group around a table reading and discussing poetry, actually, physically present, with the extraneous technology excluded for once. The attraction, if you like, of the single hesitant human voice in a world of button-pressing reproducibility.
I made it clear in my public lectures that they were aimed, over the heads of the cognoscenti and the academics, at the young who would carry on the discourse and the argument into a new era. And gratifyingly, after the death of Seamus Heaney, many young people got back to me to say how much they had connected with that.
Q: How important is the role of Ireland Chair of Poetry? What role does it play in helping to conserve and promote Irish poetry?
Poetry is essentially an underground thing, and in my view that is its power and its force.
It is an original source, deeper than and previous to the more social engagements of plays or novels. But poets too need a social platform for that side of the poetic imagination that can express itself in ideas, opinions, historical contexts, personal biography – and that platform is what the chair of poetry provides. It is three years long so no-one gets to hog the limelight, and the person who follows may have opposite points of view and a conversation is generated from one set of lectures to the next. Also, those who have held it so far have had a healthy independence from Academe – one foot in the street, so to speak.
I’m wary of words like ‘conserving’ or ‘promoting’ Irish poetry, which smack of the wrong kind of social responsibility. I’d be happier to think of a few wild words blown like leaves into the sanitised air of the seminar room, with accompanying uproar.
Q: Ireland and Its Elsewheres, the public lectures of your time as Ireland Professor of Poetry published by UCD Press at the start of November, focuses on locating yourself and other Irish poets in relation to the literary traditions of Britain, Europe and the United States. Is it your personal experience living in different parts of the world that has made you want to focus on Irish poetry’s place in the world or something other than that?
It is personal experience that underpins what I’ve tried to say in ‘Ireland and its Elsewheres’ but I didn’t want the lectures to be about me, or the story of my life, extensively quoting from myself etcetera. I very deliberately made them ‘issues-based’ rather than autobiographical, apart from the odd bit of context – the’ issues’ being the force-fields or cultural overlaps between Ireland and the three landmasses – Britain, Europe and North America – that in my view have energised, for better or worse, the work being done here in the last hundred years or so. I feel passionately that we are emerging, after enforced delays like the Northern Ireland troubles, from a century of cultural introversion, self-obsession even, as if the rest of the world were incidental to our endless minings and retrievings of our own dark past.
Q: What is your assessment of the current state of Irish poetry? Who are the contemporary poets you are excited about / would recommend?
It would be invidious for me to name names in an Irish context, but ‘Seriously into Cultural Detritus’ the first of the three lectures in my book, is about a group of British/ American poets, most of them with Irish or Scottish connections, who in my view brought back the central intensities of poetry from across the Atlantic where they had dwelt for much of the twentieth century . My unsystematic readings in recent Irish poetry suggest to me that their intellectual toughness is being picked up on over here, which in our rather soft-centred traditionalist lyric climate is, in my opinion, timely.
Q: Finally, are you working on a new collection? If so, what can you tell us about it?
I grew up in the physical book-world and am growing older in the world of virtual electronic interchange. I’ve had the luck in the last few years to publish three physical books – Secular Eden, The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass and The Holding Centre – which sum me up so far, but like many I feel at a crossroads as to which mode of transference, if any, is the right one for me from now on. I might just hedge my bets over the next few years by publishing only prose.