reviewed by the Judge
"I went back to bury him, ...and turned my back forever on it all." ('The Mule Duignan'). There is much turning, going and looking back in Bernard O'Donoghue's Selected Poems, a small volume drawing from the author's four collections of poetry published between 1991 and 2003. Openly, this going back is staged in the poet's discussions of Ireland, his country of origin, left at an early age in favour of England. More subtly, it takes place in the poet's throw-backs to ancient or medieval history and mythology, an intertextual ability reflected in content as well as style.
The insistence on indecisive rhetorical turns produces an atmosphere of such doubtfulness that more often than not the poet's sense of his own inadequacy invades the subject-matter of the poem.
O'Donoghue's (re-)evocation of events in his personal past is always neutral in tone and register, even modest in its leaning away from ideological commitment and drama (facile or not). The urgency to speak of these episodes in a way that is sincere to both the past and the present is probably what leads O'Donoghue to adopt the specific style which characterises his work. This style is defined, in order, by a direct and speech-like turn of phrase, a form that is mostly very loose, an inclination towards brevity (even encapsulation), and a consistent simplicity of diction. Such a simplicity is the technical platform employed to project various reflections, primarily on the theme of Ireland, but also on other, more disconnected and occasional questions. It is undoubtedly these stylistic traits which first jump to attention when beginning to engage with O'Donoghue's lyrics.
The question of whether this way of writing works appears to have been met in the positive. Gunpowder, the poet's second collection in the volume, won the 1995 Whitbread Award for Poetry, and the few secondary sources I have been able to read on the author are favourable. Subjective taste certainly comes into it, but a measure of doubt must be advanced on the technical value of verse which feels so prosaic. Consider this paragraph from 'The Rainmaker,' the opening poem of the Gunpowder selection:
At the second stop a man - knocking on:
Seventy if he's a day - steps carefully
Into the seat across from you,
With neat cap and blue Everton scarf.
He reaches inside his gaberdine mac
And pulls out a small book. I can see,
Without peering too obviously,
That it is the poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym
In Welsh. His lips begin to move;
His eyes never lift again. He must be
Going to Bangor too. Celtic Studies Dept.?
But no: at Colwyin Bay, above the caravans
And idle fairground stuff, he folds the book
Back inside his scarf and off he goes.
With no need to reignite the old debate on what distinguishes prose from poetry, passages like this do risk feeling somewhat dry, at least to the habitual poetry reader. Here are no creative metaphors, no striking similes, no memorable imagery, little or no unconventional use of phrase, much less such things as metre or rhyme. Of course, the above paragraph was chosen to serve my purposes, and the poem does eventually go in more interesting directions, but readers should be warned that much if not most of O'Donoghue's verse is composed of passages in the fashion of the above - prosaic, deliberately simple, and descriptive. Usually the principle seems to be that of using the episodes described, rather than the language itself, as broader metaphors / symbols / suggestions towards other truths - in other words, the mode of a story-teller.
In itself, there is nothing objectionable about using anecdotal story-telling in verse to produce meaning. Unfortunately, too often in O'Donoghue's case these efforts seem to fall short of their objective. 'Perseids,' also from Gunpowder, describes an occasion in which the spectacle of a meteor shower is spoilt by rain. It closes with the lines: "...One by one / [The raindrops] jumped across us, breaking / Against the ground, to denote / The passing or coming / Of what wet soul who could say." In this as in other poems in the volume ('Ghouls,' 'The Horse that Had Visions of Immortality,' 'Redwings'), we find a set of closing lines which lend themselves to some interesting double readings, but which are also, alas, generally too vague to be incisive. The insistence on indecisive rhetorical turns (as in the above 'who could say') produces an atmosphere of such doubtfulness that more often than not the poet's sense of his own inadequacy invades the subject-matter of the poem and becomes the dominant theme at the expense of whatever other object is being treated. The ending of 'Perseids' is less about meteor-showers than about the ignorance of those who behold them. The topics of the other, various poems all end up being sucked into this same theme too.
This type of epistemological angst is, let us be clear about it, no more than a (post-)modern cliché. It was innovative when poets like Mallarmé and Eliot introduced it, and it was penetrating when poets like Borges and Montale perfected it. Today, it's just what everyone does. Adopting a 'who would know' register is almost as expected as finding a poem for a dead child/lover/father. It is the adult version of teen angst poems - as best exemplified in the pretentiously titled 'Nel Mezzo del Cammin,' which states: "So the odd poem (two in a good year) / Won't do to make the edifice / I'd hoped to leave. Flush out the fantasy." Yes, please do.
This brings us to the core contradiction in this Selected Poems, that of preaching a doctrine which says "I don't know how to preach". A number of these poems, especially in the third and fourth collections, do possess a moving lyric surge. Yet even a line as touchingly sincere and self-aware as that which closes 'Finneigéas' - "no one loves a wise man, not even himself'" - feels ultimately questionable, because the underlying unease seems to undermine the authority of its own statement. Similarly, in 'Long Words' a vignette is depicted on the wisdom of old people, who claim, "Though I have never gone to school, ... Still I met the scholars coming home." This is a case study. O'Donoghue has gone to school (indeed is a fellow at Wadham College in Oxford), so the poem says more about O'Donoghue's anxiety over his own 'wisdom' than it does on this 'popular' wisdom, which is a fiction anyway.
And perhaps this is the problem with O'Donoghue - that he is, in every sense of the word, an academic, and that the role of an academic is fundamentally aleatory. When reading poems like 'Hermes,' one of the poet's best, one nonetheless finds passages like this: "Who dug your grave, Denis, / Since you dug everyone's? / Who carried your coffin?" The repeated and unanswerable interrogation is moving, but it is also a standard rhetorical trope from the ancient lyric. O'Donoghue's work is infused with a drive towards finding a personal, sincere voice, but it constantly falls back to classical, even formulaic turns of phrase. Compare the lines in 'Ter Conatus'...
'D'you want a hand?' he asked,
Taking a step towards her. 'I can manage,'
She answered, feeling for the stairs.
Three times, like that, he tried to reach her.
But, being so little practiced in such gestures,
Three times the hand fell back, and took its place,
Unmoving at his side.
... with these from the Odyssey (XI):
I went to bind, I thought to myself,
The extinct mother. Three times I strove
To press her shade against my heart,
And three times she slid from my arms,
Like a dream, or a subtle fog.
I point to the similarity with the qualifier that 'Ter Conatus', like 'Hermes,' is in fact one of O'Donoghue's most effective and enjoyable poems: synthetic, measured, and candid. The echo of past voices is presumably self-aware, and it is often rewarding when it can be picked up (especially by comparison with the rather insipid prose which constitutes his attempt at a more modern voice, so pervasive in his earlier poems). And yet the power of a scholar's voice is also its limit. The insight and inspiration produced by these poems, like the professional history of O'Donoghue, remains predominantly academic (and when the poems shoot for more, they fall back on themselves, by virtue of the underlying angst discussed above). It is a matter which reflects the life of the author, at least in appearance, because if anything more interesting than living outside of Ireland has happened to O'Donoghue, it certainly finds no space in this volume. The Selected Poems, when they are not re-imagining the Irish country, are about typically mundane experiences. They discuss gardening, journeys on holiday, bird-watching. 'The Quiet Man' is probably the blandest from this point of view, in which that very ordinary experience of going to see a movie becomes the topic for a poem - a poem which ultimately has little more insight to offer, in this writer's opinion, than what one should find in a perceptive film review. Perhaps it is only when mourning the death of personal friends (something which O'Donoghue does a lot, indeed admits in 'Hermes' to having 'specialised' in) that the poems pick up a broader interest. But the theme is one that has been done, often and better.
On the whole this is not a very memorable book of poetry. There are some lyric gems spread here and there, especially in the third and fourth collections, but in general the selection fails to produce a congruent, durable intellectual or aesthetic statement. What must be questioned, though, is not the quality of the verse as such. It is the agenda of the publishers. Faber & Faber have a reputation for publishing some of the most elegant and popular volumes of verse by established poets along the lines of Eliot or Auden. In terms of presentation, O'Donoghue's Selected Poems is made to stand alongside the works by the above. Yet the idea of a selection seems to have little purpose here. These types of chosen works draw from three, four, five decades of presence on the poetic scene; they serve, among other things, as homages to the enduring contribution of their authors. O'Donoghue's collections span twelve years in publication history. More importantly, one gets the impression that his works are best approached individually - interesting intellectual narratives such as the concerns with death in Outliving, or the bizarre esoteric references in The Weakness, are here suggested but not developed. And in this case, why not just buy the original books in the first place? Here Nor There and Outliving are much recommended over Gunpowder.
This Selected Poems will no doubt cash in with passers-by, whether casual or not, who wish to introduce themselves to a contemporary author. But it does not do any favours to a poet who, judging by these lyrics, may already have received more favour than he deserves.