Article from The Irish Independent
Poems of love and loneliness
His intense poetry, much of it on the theme of loneliness and suicide, made Ciara Dwyer rather nervous of meeting Paul Durcan. Instead, she found a warm and resilient man who thinks a man’s life is incomplete without a woman.
ON a glorious Saturday morning the poet Paul Durcan appears before me, right outside Ryan’s Pub. (It is opposite Sandymount Green, one of his favourite spots, where he often sits on a bench with a coffee, lapping up the sunlight.) He looks like he has dressed especially for our meeting, all bright red and rust. When I greet him, his face crinkles into a broad smile. It’s plain to see that he is bursting with vitality. I am much relieved.
Among the 82 poems in his latest book of poetry ‘Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being’ there are a few dark poems which lingered with me long after I read them. In Thinking About Suicide, Durcan writes of how although he may never commit suicide, he spends part of each day thinking about it, and of how he lacks the courage to do it. In the same poem, he says he wakes up in the morning with 60 per cent depression, and that’s how it remains for the whole day. But then he says that depression and despair are two different states of mind, not having a lot in common, and although he has 60 per cent depression, he does not despair.
In the book there are plenty of upbeat poems too, ones in which he celebrates life and great people with their ‘indomitable gaiety’ and ‘gritty integrity’ and yet his preoccupation with suicide hovers in other poems, appearing in lines like a worrying aside. It’s hard to get this out of your thoughts. As a result, I feared that I was going to meet a bleak soul, but he was far from it. In my time with him, and then later when I listened back to the interview tapes, one phrase kept recurring ‘I have been incredibly fortunate’.
This is the prism through which he surveys his life these days. Good for him. This cheerful disposition is an even greater achievement when you consider how hard it can be for him to get there, and indeed remain there.
The 67-year-old Dubliner lives alone in a house in Ringsend. He often refers to it in his poems as his ‘cave’.
‘People say to me, why is it you never visit the Francis Bacon studio?’ he says, referring to the artist’s chaotic workspace on permanent display in the Hugh Lane Gallery. ‘I say, I live in the Francis Bacon studio.’
But for all the unintentional disorder in his house, Durcan has some order to his life. How else could he keep producing his books of poetry with such regularity? Although he is a sensitive soul, he is resilient. He tells me that he feels better when he is in a routine of regular hours and daily writing.
‘When I wake up at seven I try to say certain prayers. They are usually psalms. One of them is ‘This is the day that the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad in it’
‘This is the day,’ he says, ‘not tomorrow or yesterday but this morning with Ciara Dwyer at 10.30. I think if Satan was around that’s what he would be doing, trying to entice people into brooding about tomorrow.’
He finds that keeping a regular pulse to his day helps him.
‘I do what I can. If I can, I try to be up for seven or half seven, a bit of breakfast, ablutions, back to bed and then I close the door for at least four hours to write. You find that a lot of writers do that – write in bed. That’s when the book gets written. I still do write in bed. For one thing, I don’t have an armchair.’
The sun is shining in through the window of Ryan’s and this ‘manna’ as he calls it, works a treat on him. Yes, Durcan is intense, and can have his sombre moments (he often talks with his eyes closed) but there is a brightness to him today. He reaches into his bag and plucks out some photographs which he has brought especially to show me. There’s a handmade card with a photo of a beautiful smiling baby with a copy of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in his tiny hands. This is Blaise Soren, the son of his daughter Siabhra. The card is inviting his granddad to his first birthday party.
He talks me through the rest of the photos. Here is his life in images, events in the past few years which explain why he is full of gratitude for his good fortune. There he is in the courtyard of the Irish College in Paris, where he stayed for a blissfully creative period and which features in his latest book. Beside him stands a student who did a PhD on his poetry. ‘I was honoured,’ he says. Another photo shows him in Newcastle West unveiling a statue of his dear late friend, the poet Michael Hartnett. In another snap he is in Trinity with a bunch of his beloved friends on the day he was awarded with an honorary D.Litt.
People are very important to Durcan. He may live alone but he needs company and conversation. It might be something small like a chat with the lovely woman Berna who works in the chemist in Sandymount or the way the woman working in Weir jewellers treated him with such grace as he bought a strap for his Swatch watch. Then there was the man he met who was walking along with his Irish red-setter. A woman asked him what colour he dyed the dog’s hair, so she could do the same with hers. His poetry is full of these people and their tales but more than material for his work, these simple yet precious encounters feed his soul.
In the past few years some of Paul’s dear friends, and spouses of those friends, have died, but he does not remain mournful. Instead he is grateful for having enjoyed the privilege of these friendships. He honours these people in his poetry. He writes of John Moriarty, the late maverick philosopher; he describes Bernie Bolger’s beautiful spirit and in the process provides much consolation to her husband, the writer Dermot Bolger and their grieving sons. And we learn how the psychiatrist Ivor Browne was bereft when his wife June Levine died, and how in Mauritius a lioness licking his hand with her sandpapery tongue made him laugh like he had not done since his wife had died.
But his poetry is not just about other people. If you want to know how Paul Durcan is doing, just read his poems. It’s all there. He tells me that TS Eliot referred to poetry as ‘one person talking to another’. Then he quotes the American poet Wallace Stevens who said that ‘the poem is the cry of its occasion’. There are some dark poems in the collection, including one where he thinks about jumping into the sea and drowning and if the female lifeguard had gone in to rescue him that would have brought a bit of intimacy back into his life. I tell him that it’s very bleak.
‘Yes, it is bleak,’ he says. ‘That’s how I felt on that particular day. It’s a state of mind but it’s not a 24-hour state of mind.’
One of the recurring themes down through the years is his fight against self-pity and of how living alone can make you selfish. Conscious of this, he struggles not to be that way, but the loneliness is ever present. He writes of his ‘showstopping loneliness’ and his ‘slapstick loneliness’.
‘So many people choose to live alone but I didn’t,’ he says. ‘This is not a judgement on anyone else, but I regard it as a failure for myself. No, I don’t regard it, I feel it in my flesh and blood.’
He believes that he is the marrying kind and refers to a line from the Jewish Talmud which says that a man without a woman is incomplete. In his poetry, Durcan has talked about his hair being ‘grey from woman hunger,’ and more is the pity that he is alone, for he is a man who is mad about women.
‘I was incredibly fortunate. I had a wonderful wife about a hundred years ago, you know I wrote about it,’ he says referring to Nessa O’Neill, with whom he had two daughters Siabhra and Sarah. ‘She was, and is, a terrific woman. Then I was very close to, but not married to or living with in a permanent way, from 1989 to 1999, a woman; her name was Kate. There’s a poem about her in that book, just an attempt at a sketch of her. It’s called Kate La Touche.’
And since then he has been alone.
‘I do regard that as a failure,’ he says.
In another poem, he writes of an encounter with a woman which ended badly and he tells me that it’s a painful one for him. In the poem he is so eager to make the woman laugh that he seems to scare her away. He believes that matters of love are often down to chance and luck. He’s right. But for all that, he is not complaining. On this sunny day, he is counting his blessings.
Although he wouldn’t recommend to a young person to become a poet, his life has brought him to far-flung places and allowed him experiences which he believes he never would have had without the poetry.
For that he feels lucky.
‘It’s a wonderful adventure,’ he says.
He has even written with glee about the pleasure of getting the free bus pass, at last.
‘And now the flaming government are thinking of taking it away,’he says.
Then he laughs.
The day is bright and full of hope and so is he. This is the day that the Lord has made and Paul Durcan has decided to rejoice and be glad in it. Bravo.