Clifton, Harry

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Nationality: Irish. Born: Dublin, 15 August 1952. Education: University College, Dublin, 1974–76, B.A. in English literature and philosophy 1974, M.A. in philosophy 1975, H.Dip. in education 1976. Career: Teacher of English and English literature, Government Teacher's College, Keffi, Nigeria, 1976–78; teacher of English and French, Blackrock College, Dublin, 1979–80; working in Irish Civil Service, 1980–88, including period of secondment working in Thailand with refugee aid programs, 1980–82; teacher of English and English literature, The New School, Assisi, Italy, 1989–91; teacher of English and media studies, St. Charles Sixth Form College, London, 1992–93; lecturer on Irish literature, University of Bremen, Germany, spring 1994; writer-in-residence, University of Bordeaux, France, spring 1996. Awards: Patrick Kavanagh award, 1981; Arts Council bursary in literature, 1982. Irish fellow, Iowa International Writer's program, 1985; fellowship at Foundation Binz 39, Scuol, Switzerland, 1991; fellowship at Atelierhaus Worpswede, Germany, 1993–94. Address: 6 rue du Pierre Brossolette, 92320 Châtillon, Paris, France.



Null Beauty. Belfast, Honest Ulsterman, 1975.

The Walls of Carthage. Dublin, Gallery Press, 1977.

Office of the Salt Merchant. Dublin, Gallery Press, 1979.

Comparative Lives. Dublin, Gallery Press, 1982.

The Liberal Cage. Dublin, Gallery Press, 1988.

At the Grave of Silone. Belfast, Honest Ulsterman, 1993.

The Desert Route: Selected Poems 1973–88. Dublin and Newcastle upon Tyne, Gallery Press/Bloodaxe, 1993.

Night Train through the Brenner. Loughcrew, County Meath, Gallery Press, 1994.


On the Spine of Italy: A Year in the Abbruzzi. London, Macmillan, 1999.


Critical Study: "The Permanent City: The Younger Irish Poets" by Gerald Dawe, in The Irish Writer and the City, edited by Maurice Harmon, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, and Totowa, New Jersey, Smythe, 1984.

Harry Clifton comments:

The poems in The Desert Route were written over a period of fifteen years and are drawn from my four collections published in Ireland over that time. I say collections rather than books, for in a very real sense this is the first book I have published, if by the term "book" is meant something other than the mechanical entity made up of sixty-four printed pages. I like to think that, between us, my editor Peter Fallon and I have been able to abstract the real structure that underlay those earlier texts and to arrive at something whole and integral, an unforced unity of experience.

As it happens, I have traveled a good deal and lived in places not normally included within the psychic space of an Irish poet. Africa, where my postuniversity wanderings led me in the late seventies as a fledgling teacher—a raw, vivifying reality after the cerebral hush of graduate studies, an awakening to sex and death, and the violence and innocence of political change. Later in the Far East, where I worked in the administration of aid programs for the hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees camped inside the Thai border and wrote dark, disaffected poems on the side of sexual and political compromise. The flip side, as I see it now, of a misplaced idealism akin to that of the thirties poets seeking to unite the active with the contemplative. Thailand in the early eighties was my Spain—it exposed a falseness in me through which flowed the seven devils of the id. I hope the African, and more particularly the Asian, poems included here convey some sense of a Western consciousness enlarged and threatened by these new psychic spaces.

In between, of course, there has always been Ireland—the "distaff side" to the wanderings. A home to come back to, albeit temporarily, and consolidate before sallying forth again. I am struck by how often over the years I have written of returning to Ireland as an ever diminishing reality which never quite reaches the vanishing point, and probably never will. Which is why, I suppose, my ideal "Irish" poet would probably be someone like Louis MacNeice, for whom Ireland is a province of his imagination, as are Sri Lanka, Norway, Iceland, Italy, or wherever he happens to be, but whose primary allegiance is to the English language itself.

Years ago a priest who is now one of the highest religious authorities in Ireland confided in me that he had never once, in forty years of living, had an experience of the Absolute. He described himself, quoting Saint Augustine, as one condemned to shuttle endlessly back and forth across the desert between Carthage and Alexandria to compare their walls—the desert, of course, being the desert of relative values. Out of that image I wrote "The Walls of Carthage," one of the earliest poems in this selection and one which in a sense defines all the journeyings of The Desert Route— for the polarities called Alexandria and Carthage might just as easily be North and South, id and consciousness, the West and elsewhere. And the desert between them, physical and fleshed out though I hope it is in these poems, no more than a state of mind.

*  *  *

"Coincident worlds/Are meshing into gear/At intersections only a god might see/Or a stationmaster," writes Harry Clifton in "Experience," the opening poem of his collection The Liberal Cage. But Clifton's poems reveal that these "coincident worlds" are visible to one more person—the poet, for whom surveying the often imperceptible or seamless overlap between disparate worlds and different measures of experience is a persistent preoccupation. Clifton has traveled extensively beyond his native Ireland, particularly to places—Africa, Asia, America—whose geography, psychic and actual, is vast and uncertain. Usually the journey is unsettling, whether "somewhere in Africa," where the "barking of primates, desolate after rain, came floating from graveyards of lorries" ("Vladimir and Estragon"), or in the "loveless, extraterrestrial space" of Middle America ("Euclid Avenue").

The varied but often jagged landscapes Clifton describes make him a writer with a particular affinity for the poetry of place, a genre, as Seamus Heaney has described it, that is known in Irish poetry as dinnseanchas. This fascination with the actual, psychic, and mythical dimensions of locale allows Clifton to use place in his poetry to negotiate the extremes of experience deftly and quietly amid the problematic terrain of the human heart in joy and despair, in and out of love, anywhere. Thus in Clifton's poems speakers characteristically attempt both to come to terms with the self as well as to understand what is external and opaque.

Not surprisingly, Clifton, the great-grandson of a Fenian exile, renders a sense of isolation just as discerningly as he does a sense of place. The isolation is both ethical and philosophical. The ethical sense is apparent throughout his work, and it is one particularly sensitive to the wreckage left by colonial and imperial presences. In the elegantly crafted "Monsoon Girl," for example, the anesthetizing hedonism of a night with a pleasure girl is jarred by lights, dope squads, the "poor starting early," and a pervasive sense of a miscarriage of justice. In the equally admirable "Walls of Carthage" the speaker is no hedonist, but he remains an isolate, this time a priest in his late forties who is "still/In the desert, still/Relativity's fool." Posting Alexandria and Carthage as the philosophical points between which he must shuttle with his "speech of failure" and "groundless visions," the priest concludes that

   We, in inferior reason
   Travel until we fall,
   To compare in a desert season,
   The beauty of their walls.

Formal, technically subtle, with a craftsman's facility for under-stated rhyme, most frequently cast in quatrains, Clifton's poetry derives its power from a philosophical complexity, a stoic's sensibility, an observable maturation of voice and attitude, and a bearing that is both passionate and compassionate. Like his better-known countrymen, Clifton left Ireland to write of foreign places, of journey, and of exile, while nonetheless invoking his native land as a place he can never wholly leave emotionally. "The Distaff Side" might be taken as an allegorical representation of his Irish and exiled selves. In the poem the red-haired "runaway daughter" has insisted that the couple return to Ireland, where "nobody knows him" and his rages

   Are all domestic, tantrums at bad little girls
   Upsetting the basket of eels he gathered for ages
   And starting their passionate journeys back to the world.

The analogues to Joyce and to Joyce's own journeyman, Leopold Bloom, are repeated in "Eccles Street, Bloomsday 1982," where, as in the poem "Ireland," breakthrough and release remain largely elusive. Nonetheless, the speaker's own "arc of odyssey" and "invisible yearning" are the prefigured but wholly possible steps taken when his love and he unsentimentally "weigh anchor at last, and go away."

Clifton's poems of exile and return are insufficiently known in some of the places—the United States preeminently—he describes so acutely. They are extraordinary works, small masterpieces of concrete description and philosophical rumination, and are deserving of a wider readership. Most fortuitously perhaps, the poet, though no longer an "Upstairs Child," still has "all the time in the world/To compose myself, and quite self-consciously."

—Sheila Haney Drain and

Jeanne Colleran