MacDara Woods was born in Dublin in 1942.
His collections of poetry include Decimal D. Sec Drinks in a Bar in Marrakesh (Dublin, New Writers Press, 1970); Early Morning Matins (Dublin, The Gallery Press, 1973); Stopping the Lights in Ranelagh (Dublin, The Dedalus Press, 1987); Miz Moon (The Dedalus Press, 1988); The Hanged Man Was Not Surrendering (The Dedalus Press, 1990); Notes From the Country of Blood-Red Flowers (The Dedalus Press, 1994); Selected Poems (The Dedalus Press, 1996); The Nightingale Water (The Dedalus Press, 2001); Knowledge in the Blood, New & Selected Poems (2001), Artichoke Wine (The Dedalus Press, 2006); The Cotard Dimension (Dedalus Press, 2011); Collected Poems (Dedalus Press, 2012); and Music From the Big Tent (Dedalus Press, 2016).
He translated Redwan Abuswesha’s The King of the Dead and other Libyan Tales (Martin Brian & O’Keefe, London 1978), and his work is on archive in the universities of Harvard and Michigan.
His work has been translated into some 12 languages, and has has been set to music and perfomed by artists such as Anuna and Bonita Hill.
With wife the poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin , he is one of the founders and continuing editors of the long-running literary journal Cyphers, along with poets Leland Bardwell and the late Pearse Hutchinson.
He is a member of Aosdána, and lives in Dublin.
REMEMBERING PATRICK KAVANAGH IN 2004:
AT THE KAVANAGH SEAT BY THE GRAND CANAL, St PATRICK’S DAY
In March 1964 I was sitting in MacDaid’s, on my way to Spain with Laetitia Mary Julia Martin, my subsequent wife, and saw Brendan Behan for the last time: when I reached the Poste Restante in Seville some ten or twelve days later, there was a letter from my mother telling me he had died.
Forty years and a few months ago, in winter, I remember sitting in a pub in Soho, around the corner from Martin Greene’s flat, with Kavanagh and Katherine, and Dickie Riordan, in the glow of the imminent appearance of the Collected Poems.
And now it’s 2004, Kavanagh’s 100th birthday. Thirty-seven years since he died, and I sometimes wonder at our yearly gathering – it’s not a particularly publicised event, no photo opportunities of the celebrity kind like church doors at funerals.
Which is not to say there haven’t been Kodak moments. There have by the hundred, each one a part of the fabric and memory of someone’s life.
David Devitt showed me recently a photograph taken here, sometime in the seventies I suppose it must have been. John Jordan, standing for some reason on the other side of the bench here, Mr Bratt, the Swedish ambassador, identified triumphantly by John as “Queen Christina’s personal emissary to me”. And there was Katherine, with a black wing of hair across her forehead, and Dickie, and Leland, and Ann O’ Neill and Christy O’ Neill, all in suspension in the improbable sunshine of a semi-tropical March in some eternal decade of an unending century.
Memories of what one person says to another, of things John Jordan said – the astonishment on occasion of his very presence, maybe one or two things I’ve said, poems of Kavanagh’s that got read. Music that was played. Liam Brady, for instance, with whom I am still making an epic journey to Scotstown in 1970, who is a monument to God because he too lives in the eternal present tense. Which is where I would hope to end my days, like Rilke’s Angel, making no distinction between the living and the dead.
Certainly where Kavanagh lived. Maybe that’s why he could invoke, so unembarrassedly, the eternal. Why he could speak without coy apology about The Poet, and Poetry, and without affectation, or delusion, of making his grove here on this urban stretch of canal bank beside this city bridge. It wasn’t just the lung cancer, and the operation, and the convalescence, the near brush with death.
The truth is he was always ready, even before any of those accidentals, to be outrageously ambushed by life.
Where by a lock niagarously roars
The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence
That perspective, an illumination waiting to happen in the perfection of that tremendous silence, when the interior and exterior worlds collide. Where the everyday now and the eternal now meet. As they do, somewhere, every day of the week; as the notorious stopped clock is right twice a day; the trick for the poet is to be there, and to know that you are.
A hundred years is a long time, thirty-seven years is a long time, and sixty-four is another long time, or certainly was as Kavanagh lived it.
And before going any further, I must make a personal acknowledgement to Kavanagh, pay a personal debt as it were, for myself and also for my immediate contemporaries, living and dead. We had a version of the metaphorical privilege of sheltering from the rain for a while, in a doorway, with a great man, and for the past 37 years I have never forgotten it. I am glad to see that Amy Mims is here today, the heroic translator of the Great Hunger into Greek. In the Introduction I wrote for that book, in 1999, I stated my personal debt:
“There was another outbreak of literary activity in Dublin at the beginning of the sixties, with two new magazines, Poetry Ireland and Arena. Kavanagh published in both of these, to good effect, his continued record of a soul. He read and acknowledged the work of young writers, myself among them, and he was a visible accessible presence, the human expression of his own aesthetic. He was the single most significant influence on me, personally and in my work, and has remained – almost without my knowing it – both mentor and arbiter. Hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t come to mind, that I do not find myself wondering in different situations what would Kavanagh have made of this? Nor, I know, am I the only one, because at its simplest, for me, and my generation, he was so patently the real thing…. (He could be) sharp and generous in the same breath, (had) the gambler’s peculiar gift for wrong-headedness, made enthusiastic sweeping statements, the only kind of statement, he said, worth listening to, and spoke authentically of love.”
Insights snatched out of time, “horrid-good outrageous insights” as they would say in the Meath of my childhood, near enough his own word: a poem I first heard, recited by John Stephen Moriarty, in the middle of Harcourt Street at the end of the fifties –
Crowds looking up with terror in their rational faces
O dance with Kitty Stobling I outrageously
Cried out-of-sense to them, while their timorous paces
Stumbled behind Jove’s page-boy paging me.
I had a very pleasant journey, thank you sincerely
For giving me my madness back, or nearly.
In the Self Portrait he asserted that thirty years before Kitty Stobling, “Shancoduff’s watery hills could have done the trick, but I was too thick to take the hint. Curious this, how I had started off with the right simplicity, indifferent to crude reason and then ploughed my way through complexities and anger, hatred and ill-will towards the faults of man, and come back to where I started…….But poetry has to do with the reality of the spirit, of faith and hope and sometimes even charity. It is a point of view. A poet is a theologian.”
“Immortality is not in the future, it is in the timeless now. A blossom is immortal within its moment. A flash of summer sunlight is immortal. Moments of happiness, grief, or joy are immortal. A man is immortal when his ideas are exciting to the young.”
He also asserted that the power of literature derived from its being concerned with things that were of no importance to newspapers or politicians. You are full of enthusiasm for the eternal verities, he said, and then out of sinful curiosity you open a newspaper. You are disillusioned and wrecked.
But plough his way he did, through complexities and anger, through satire and polemic, at full volume. And like all purgative katharsis – you miss it when you don’t have it.
And more than anything, we need today, in our global village, a theologian of the timeless now: some deep engagement, not fashionable, pastiche or parody, not from the official, licensed satirists, the chattering magazine-classes, but again an awkward angry Monaghan foghorn, who believes in the possibility of faith, hope and charity.
As everyone from Barnum to Bailey, Lenin to Lawlor, Bush to Blair, Cullen to Campbell, Noah to Neptune knows, if you tell a lie often enough, or better still print it, it becomes a fact. A thing that troubles me deeply about our current and enthusiastic position on the outskirts of the global village, is a refinement on this – the process by which language becomes increasingly meaningless. Not an accident, I believe, but part of the spinning acceleration of global brute-politik itself.
And when I’m listening at home to the radio of an afternoon, which I often do after I’ve eaten, because I still have this ludicrous delusion of wanting to know what’s going on, it’s at this point in the conversation that Joe Duffy moves in on the unwary phone caller: Oho, says he, It’s a conspiracy, is that what you’re saying? Are you saying there’s a conspiracy? And of course everyone retreats into mass-sanity, into self-deprecation at once –
Good God, no. Certainly not.
But I always want to say Yes, that there is indeed a conspiracy afoot, a conspiracy of expedience, of acquiescence, of self-censorship, of good business sense, of so-called correctness, of dumbing down and intellectual disinvolvement, something like the conspiracy of the 38 genuinely decent people in Queens in New York, in 1964 as it happens, her neighbours, who watched Kitty Genovese being stabbed to death outside their windows, and didn’t lift a finger to stop it. They didn’t conspire, Joe, in the sense that they didn’t plot it, but they did in the sense that they knowingly let it happen.
The genesis of Cohen’s First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.
And it is because of that so-called correctness and intellectual disinvolvement that I’m mentioning these matters in what is meant to be a celebratory speech for Patrick Kavanagh, on the canal bank by Baggot Street Bridge, The Rowley Mile: because I know that these are our contemporary versions of affairs and considerations that preoccupied him. The not giving up on truth. I heard someone ask on the BBC last Sunday in a similar context: Should art tackle these issues or leave well alone? Kavanagh’s answer was, that Art is never art.
What is called art is merely life.
In a piece written for Nonplus on Violence and Literature, Kavanagh wrote: “A lie is a terrifying business, looking so much more reasonable than the truth, for truth often takes time to make itself apparent. Nowadays, of course, at the outbreak of war, poets are drafted into what is called Information, one of their main jobs being the manufacture of lies injurious to the enemy.” Maybe so, in the last Great Patriotic War, when as Louis MacNeice put it, Brother Fire was having his dog-day, but we have moved, beyond even 1984 and the Ministry of Truth. The simple fact is, that for these last few years and more, language seems increasingly to be – by the very collusion of the professional communicators – without meaning or relevance.
The moral high ground enclosure is not a place I’d want to be, in a cloud of paranoia, with everyone in terror of being found out. And poets (if one may call oneself that) are as open as any to the human foibles. Kavanagh himself was no stranger to horse-trading.
But consider this, a “coalition of the willing” for example, what other kind is there? What does it mean? A “compassionate conservatism”, what does that mean? Or a sign straight out of 1984 that I saw cut into the stone gate-pillars of a Marine troop-transport air-base in South Carolina last April: in two-foot-high lettering – The “Noise” in inverted commas, ‘The “Noise” You Hear Is The Sound Of Freedom’, or on the radio phone-in show in New York last December, a caller referring quite matter-of-factly to “those anti-freedom Liberals”, and no-one demurred.
Anti-freedom Liberal….how did language get to that?
The older I get, of an age when you think you might have some kind of a handle on things, the more I realise there’s no grasp to be had, we live – as I overheard someone say recently – in a laboratory of catastrophe. But then I return to the man we are honouring here today –
To be dead is to stop believing in
The masterpieces we will begin tomorrow
Where I began these notes it was forty years ago, 1964, and I was setting out for Spain with my proud green passport, fire green as grass, the marvellous Supremes were singing Baby Love, and Where Did Our Love Go, and Joan Baez was singing –
My feet start going round, going round,
going down the highway, my feet start going round, and I gotta go…
And Kavanagh was walking the streets of Dublin, a year younger than I am now, leaving a trail of bicarbonate of soda, exploring the comic, sometimes literally homeless, or – more correctly – between abodes, with one lung, in pain, alcoholic, adhering somehow, miraculously, to the spirit of his contention that Supreme Good Health Is The Essence Of Genius. And writing, and publishing in small magazines: this from Arena, in 1963:
Thank You, Thank You
Epilogue to a series of lectures given at University College Dublin
…Don’t grieve like Marcus Aurelius
Who said that though he grew old and grey
The people on the Appian Way
Were always the same pleasant age
Twenty-four on average…
I thank you and I say how proud
That I have been by fate allowed
To stand here having the joyful chance
To claim my own inheritance
For most have died the day before
The opening of that Holy Door.
What I have always known, and what I wish all others could realise, about Kavanagh’s final years in Dublin, is the extent to which he was needed, and how much he was loved.