Durcan, Paul

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DURCAN, Paul


Nationality: Irish. Born: Dublin, 16 October 1944. Education: Gonzaga College, Dublin; University College, Cork, 1971–74, B.A. (honors) in archaeology and medieval history. Family: Married Nessa O'Neill in 1969 (separated 1983); two daughters. Career: Poet-in-residence, The Frost Place, Franconia, New Hampshire, 1985; writer-in-residence, Trinity College, Dublin, 1990. Founder, with Martin Green, Two Rivers literary magazine, 1969; member, Aosdána. Awards: Patrick Kavanagh award, 1975; Irish Arts Council bursary, 1976, 1980; Irish-American Cultural Institute award, 1989; Whitbread award for poetry, 1990. Address: 14 Cambridge Avenue, Ringsend, Dublin 4, Ireland.

Publications

Poetry

Endsville, with Brian Lynch. Dublin, New Writers Press, 1967.

O Westport in the Light of Asia Minor. Dublin, Anna Rivia, 1975; revised edition, London, Harvill, 1995.

Teresa's Bar. Dublin, Gallery Press, 1976; revised edition, 1986.

Sam's Cross. Dublin, Profile Poetry, 1978.

Jesus, Break His Fall. Dublin, Raven Arts Press, 1980.

Ark of the North. Dublin, Raven Arts Press, 1982.

The Selected Paul Durcan, edited by Edna Longley. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1982.

Jumping the Train Tracks with Angela. Dublin, Raven Arts Press, 1983.

The Berlin Wall Café. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1985; London, Harvill Press, 1995.

Going Home to Russia. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1987.

Jesus and Angela. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1988.

In the Land of Punt. Dublin, Clashganna Mills Press, 1988.

Daddy, Daddy. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1990.

Crazy about Women. Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland, 1991.

A Snail in My Prime. London, Harvill Collins, 1993; New York, Viking Penguin, 1995.

Give Me Your Hand. London, MacMillan, 1994.

Christmas Day, with A Goose in the Frost. London, Harvill, 1996.

Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil: One Hundred Poems. London, Harvill, 1999.

Other

At the Edge of the Edge of Mark Joyce. Dublin, Green On Red Gallery, 1998.

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Critical Studies: "The Permanent City: The Younger Irish Poets" by Gerald Dawe, in The Irish Writer and the City, edited by Maurice Harmon, Buckinghamshire, Smythe, and Totowa, New Jersey, Barnes and Noble, 1984; "Masks and Voices: Dramatic Personas in the Poetry of Paul Durcan" by Kathleen McCracken Gahern, in Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (Saskatoon, Canada), 13(1), June 1987; "Poetic Forms and Social Malformations" by Edna Longley, in Tradition and Influence in Anglo-Irish Poetry, edited by Terence Brown and Nicholas Grene, Totowa, New Jersey, Barnes and Noble, 1989; The Kilfenora Teaboy: A Study of Paul Durcan edited by Colm Toibin, Dublin, New Island, 1996; "Ekphrasis and Textual Consciousness" by Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux, in Word & Image (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15(1), January-March 1999.

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Paul Durcan has emerged as the most dynamic, distinctive, and urgent voice in contemporary Irish poetry. His voice has become so rooted in southern Irish experience that one forgets his years of exile and obscurity. His earlier poetic years were spent wandering London looking for work, eventually editing the literary magazine Two Rivers. His years in Cork, fathering two children and studying at the university, were spent in the same hermetic privacy. Yet he was writing all the time. In 1985, eighteen years after publishing his first book, he published The Berlin Wall Café. He had finally reached a wide and appreciative audience. The core of the collection was a group of poems celebrating a marriage that had just ended. Poems like "The Jewish Bride," "Raymond of the Rooftops," and "The Pieta's Over" had a profound effect on those who read them:

                          it is Easter all over our lives:
   The revelation of our broken marriage, and its resurrection;
   The breaking open of the tomb, and the setting free …

Durcan laid bare the punctured flesh of relationships. The poems were full of the energy of human conflict, an energy of integrity because of the poet's self-loathing and defense of the beloved. This exposure of the purely personal—personal suffering without the camouflage of myth or evasiveness of metaphor—was new in Irish poetry. There was neither Leda nor the Swan, Diarmuid nor Grainne, but the named human principals involved. A number of critics reacted angrily to this kind of poetry. Yet Durcan had spent twenty years perfecting his narrative gift, and the charged narratives of The Berlin Wall Café came at the end of a long line of determined narrative clusters in five previous books. In a series of intense monologues over many years he had sharpened his own sensibility and trained himself as a pensive witness: "Now he will grope back into the abode and crouch down; / Another dry holocaust in the urban complex over" or "And I think of all the nationalities of Israel / And of how each always clings to his native hat, / His priceless and moveable roof …"

The cadence of Durcan's later poems, his ability to create monologues that seem like the product of eavesdropping, is present in smaller moments in the earlier poems. Much has been made of Durcan's surrealism as well as his capacity for outrageous description and hyperbole. Yet he himself has said that surrealism is too restrictive a category: "Surrealism was a technique for a short period of history; I don't think I'm using technique at all. I prefer to think of it as metamorphosis." His poems often begin in a bland narrative manner, as in a provincial newspaper report, and then undergo metamorphosis:

   When you analyse it, like Dr. Ronan W,
   You can see that she and me—
   That we're quite a pair of trapeze artists, the pair of us,
   Pipistrelles on bars—the city falling down all around us.

It is in the ordinary places—pubs, railway stations, courtrooms, and kitchens—that a point of departure is reached. Durcan often uses the banal Hemingway tone of cables to dampen our expectations and create room for conflict. Like the Cork poet Patrick Galvin, who employed brilliant theater tricks in a previous generation, Durcan sometimes uses outrageous titles like "Archbishop of Kerry to Have an Abortion" or "Wife Who Smashed Television Gets Jail" to create a mood and grab attention. In his poetry he has absorbed all of the pathos and drama of Nell McCafferty's famous Irish Times column "In the Eyes of the Law," which was so influential in the 1970s:

   A forty-two-year-old parish priest—Fr. Francey Mulholland—
   Was charged yesterday in the Circuit Criminal Court
   With not wearing a condom, and with intent
   To cause an unwanted pregnancy.

But what Durcan has created is a unique body of work, entirely personal and forged out of an area where traditionalists would never dare to tamper. He has allowed the culture of the Irish south to intrude upon his life, and, even when dealing with the most painful personal crisis, he has created ripples that wash against Irish society in general.

—Thomas McCarthy

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Durcan, Paul

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