Poet Paul Durcan uses poetry to criticise but doesn’t want offend

Paul Durcan’s new poems are critical of the ills in our society, but he still doesn’t want to offend, writes Caroline O’Doherty

IT COULD be the title of one of Paul Durcan’s compositions — ‘The Poet Apologises For The Horribleness Of His Poems’.

But that’s what Durcan does as he flicks through his new collection, asking tentatively for an opinion on two of the poems he worried about including.

‘Irish Bankers Shoot Dead Fifty-Seven Homeless Children’ is an angry commentary on the grotesque behaviours of the Celtic Tiger, while ‘1916 Not To Be Commemorated’ is a satirical lament on the loss of idealism and independence.

Given all that has been written and ranted on these subjects in the last few years, Durcan’s concern seems excessive, but he is adamant that he doesn’t want to upset unnecessarily.

“One of my uncles was a lovely man, who came from a family with nothing, in Co. Cork, and joined the bank, like so many people did at 17, as a clerk. I can’t stress too much what a lovely man he was and he ended up being a bank manager.

“I feel a bit guilty in relation to good men like him. It’s too awful to contemplate if he was to read that.

“To me, it’s a horrible poem, but I had to put it in. It had to be there. I am constantly brooding on those two poems, about, you know, ‘it’s so awful that should I put them in’?

“There’s another one that I think is a horrible poem, to tell you the truth,” he says, referring to ‘Meeting The Great Consultant’, about the indignity of an invasive procedure carried out by an arrogant doctor.

“I ask him a question, but he ignores me — after all/He is a consultant and consultants do not consult,/Certainly not with a patient.”

It is followed by ‘The W.B. Yeats Shopping Centre’, a humorous, but nonetheless scathing, depiction of commercialism gone mad.

“In the Luggage Department/I purchased a suitcase with wheels./Medium-size. Scarlet-red./Toilet-trained. Guaranteed.”

Yet for all the currency of these themes, Durcan is anxious that they should not dominate. “I don’t want to engage in polemic,” he says.

He shouldn’t worry.

The Days Of Surprise, his new collection, has 67 poems spanning his 70 years and a rich variety of topics and thoughts.

The title refers to a phrase Durcan found in Italian media in the weeks following the unpredicted election of the unpredictable Pope Francis, an event he celebrates in joyous verse.

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LIFE STILL SURPRISING

Other surprises punctuate the pages — unexpectedly finding himself in the arms of a woman, at an age when he thought such frolics were past him, discovering the handsome walking cane of the late actor, David Kelly, in his post; the arrival of a good and feisty friend, just when one was desperately needed.

Surprising, too, for the reader is the fact that Durcan can still mine his childhood for new material, despite his frequent visits there in his many previous publications.

‘57 Dartmouth Square’ celebrates his childhood home and the importance of physical landmarks as signposts to significant memories. ‘First Mixed Party’ juxtaposes the thrill of an adolescent dalliance with the pettiness of adult nit-picking, and ‘Youth’ captures the pain of yearning for an indifferent girl.

“Hardly a day goes by that you don’t think of your own childhood, but, as you get older, things may come back even more,” says Durcan, explaining that he rarely has to go searching for his past, as it tends to present itself to him.

“Your mother and your father are always on your mind. They’re always coming back and bringing all your childhood experiences with them,” he says.

The theme of death recurs throughout the collection — from the loss of war reporter, Marie Colvin, amid the shell-wrecked streets of Syria to the passing of old friends and relatives back home. But Durcan says the subject doesn’t preoccupy him.

“There are quite a number of elegies, but that’s life and the nature of life as the years pass by and friends go. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t think of death,” he says.

Durcan says he lingered on thoughts of his own demise in just two poems, ‘Il Bambino Domiente’ and ‘Meeting Mother In The Big O’.

“I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that, down the second-half of my life, the thought or the question of taking your own life has passed through my mind, both arising in myself and in seeing tragedy in other people’s lives.

“Without being morbid, I always loved sport, from day one to now, and clearly I’m on the last lap now. In the mile, there are four laps of the track and, in that sense, I’m on the last lap. That’s how it is.”

Durcan can’t be accused of morbidity, because there is much in the book to suggest he still gets a tremendous kick out of life, even when it is at its most ridiculous.

IN PRAISE OF WOMEN

Durcan repeatedly praises women — whether he be whimsically lusting after RTÉ’s female weather presenters, or in awe of the sacrifice of mothers, or cheering on boxer Katie Taylor.

“If I was writing now, I would include Stephanie Roche because — well, it’s obvious — but also because she seems to really embody that idea of being the salt of the earth.”

With a broken marriage long behind him, Durcan also has a healthy envy for successful partnerships — he even adds Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his wife, Fionnuala, to the list, during one of his distinctive rhapsodies, which he joking describes as his “jazz solos”.

Durcan also includes his old friend, President Michael D Higgins and his wife, Sabina, though mention of them hits a nerve of frustration with the media, which niggles several times throughout the book.

“I know Michael D as a fellow poet. I first met him at a poetry reading in the 1970s. I’ve forgotten whether I was reading or he was reading, but it was in Galway, out in Clifden “It depresses me that people — I suppose I’m talking about the media — don’t report this more seriously. I have seen reports where they say ‘alleged poet’ or have somebody saying that he isn’t really a poet at all and that really is a knife in my back, because it couldn’t be more untrue.”

It worries Durcan that cutbacks threaten the arts, and he says that while The Days Of Surprise is not grant-aided, many of his previous works were. “But for the grants that I was so fortunate to receive, I would not have been able to write,” he says.

In ‘1916 Not To Be Commemorated’, he sees the poets silenced by the outlawing of expression in any form other than “celebrity cliché, media jargon, smart-speak”.

“I was just thinking, the other day, what could we do on this Easter Monday, 2016, and I’m trying to be somehow reasonable and I wouldn’t like to get into a public polemic about it.

“But I was thinking, maybe just five minutes’ silence, where everything stops, apart from utterly essential services. Just complete silence.

“And no poetry readings. But no firing of cannon, either.”Paul Durcan will be reading from The Days of Surprise at various venues, including: March 18, Mountains to Sea Festival, Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire; April 25, Cork World Book Festival, Triskel Arts Centre, Cork; May 7, Thurles; May 10, Dublin Writers’ Festival, Gate Theatre, Dublin; May 27-31, Listowel Writers’ Week.

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