Durcan, Paul 1944-
DURCAN, Paul 1944-
PERSONAL: Born October 16, 1944, in Dublin, Ireland; son of John (an attorney) and Sheila (an attorney; maiden name, MacBride) Durcan; married Nessa O'Neill (a teacher), August 3, 1969 (separated, 1983); children: Sarah, Siabhra. Education: University College, Cork, B.A. (with first class honors). Hobbies and other interests: "I travel a great deal and spend as much time as possible looking at paintings and going to films."
ADDRESSES: Home and Office—14 Cambridge Ave., Ringsend, Dublin 4, Ireland.
CAREER: Poet, 1962—. Represented Ireland at Struga Poetry Evenings, Yugoslavia, 1981, Canadian Association for Irish Studies conference, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, 1987, and Poetry International, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 1987; Robert Frost House, Franconia, NH, resident poet, 1985. Participant in poetry readings throughout the United Kingdom and Canada; has appeared on Irish radio and television.
AWARDS, HONORS: Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award, 1974; Poetry Book Society choice, 1985, for The Berlin Wall Café; Irish Arts Council grants for creative writing, 1976 and 1980-81; Whitbread Poetry Prize, Booksellers Association of Great Britain and Ireland, c. 1990, for Daddy, Daddy.
poetry collections, except as noted
(With Brian Lynch) Endsville, New Writers' Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1967.
(With others) New Voices in Contemporary Irish Poetry, Goldsmith, 1975.
O Westport in the Light of Asia Minor: Poems (also see below), Anna Rivia Books (Dun Laoire, Ireland), 1975.
Teresa's Bar (also see below), edited by Peter Fallon, Gallery (Dublin, Ireland), 1976, revised edition, 1986.
Sam's Cross: Poems (also see below), Profile Poetry (Portmarnock, Ireland), 1978.
Jesus, Break His Fall (also see below), Raven Arts Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1980.
Ark of the North, Raven Arts Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1982.
The Selected Paul Durcan (contains selections from O Westport in the Light of Asia Minor, Teresa's Bar, Sam's Cross, and Jesus, Break His Fall), edited with an introduction by Edna Longley, Blackstaff (Belfast, Ireland), 1982.
Jumping the Train Tracks with Angela (also see below), Raven Arts Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1983.
The Berlin Wall Café, Blackstaff (Belfast, Ireland), 1985.
Going Home to Russia, Blackstaff (Belfast, Ireland), 1987.
(With Gene Lambert) In the Land of Punt, Clashganna Mills Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1988.
Jesus and Angela: Poems (contains selections from Jesus, Break His Fall and Jumping the Train Tracks with Angela), Blackstaff (Belfast, Ireland), 1988.
Daddy, Daddy, Blackstaff (Belfast, Ireland), c. 1990.
Crazy about Women, National Gallery of Ireland (Dublin, Ireland), 1991.
A Snail in My Prime: New and Selected Poems, Black-staff (Belfast, Ireland), 1993, Penguin (New York, NY), 1995.
Give Me Your Hand, Macmillan (London, England), 1994.
Christmas Day, Harvill (London, England), 1996.
At the Edge of the Edge of Mark Joyce (criticism), Green on Red Gallery (Dublin, Ireland), 1998.
Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil: One Hundred Poems, Harvill (London, England), 1999.
Cries of an Irish Caveman, Harvill (London, England), 2001.
Paul Durcan's Diary, New Island (Dublin, Ireland), 2003.
Contributor to anthologies, including The Wishbone, edited by Paul Muldoon, Gallery, 1984; and Poets of Munster, edited by Sean Dunne, Anvil Press, 1985. Contributor of poetry to periodicals, including Irish Press, Irish Times, Hibernia, Honest Ulsterman, Gorey Detail, and Aquarius.
SIDELIGHTS: Paul Durcan, according to essayist Fergal O'Doherty in the Encyclopedia of World Literature, "is like a priest celebrating the mass of the ordinary and the unpretentious." The Irish poet is recognized for his work criticizing his country's social and religious institutions. Yet there seems to be two schools of Durcan assessment. "To some he is unique and among the best," noted James Simmons in Linen Hall Review; "to others a rather dubious performance poet." Born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1944, Durcan focuses on a divided Ireland: on both his country's struggle for cultural independence from its English neighbors and on the incessant fighting between Irish Catholics and Protestants. Often likened to Patrick Kavanagh, Durcan echoes the famed Irish poet's embittered and strong personal statements about the turbulent country. With what has been deemed a lyrical command of language and, as John Wain noted in London, an "inborn impulse … to make language dance and sing," Durcan encompasses the universality of human experience through his poetic accounts of Irish culture, politics, and life.
Although Durcan has been publishing poetry since the late 1960s, he earned widespread critical acclaim with The Selected Paul Durcan, a collection of poems from four earlier volumes, including Teresa's Bar and Jesus, Break His Fall. Through these poems, notable for bearing idiosyncratic titles which often relate stories themselves, Durcan expresses his outrage over the religious and political alliances he believes threaten Ireland's cultural and spiritual independence. He satirizes his Catholic upbringing in "What Is a Protestant, Daddy?" and castigates the Catholic church for what he sees as its disregard for human life with poems featuring a bishop who murders his wife, another who dreams of a prostitute, and a nun who becomes pregnant. Through "Irish Hierarchy Bans Colour Photography" and "Margaret Thatcher Joins the IRA" Durcan attacks both the repressive English government and its nemesis, the radical Irish Republican Army. In the two-line epigram "Ireland 1972," as quoted by Derek Mahon in New Statesman, the author tersely depicts the violence of Irish life: "Next to the fresh grave of my beloved grandmother/The grave of my firstlove murdered by my brother—."
Durcan concurrently scorns those who suppress Irish identity and culture and rejoices in the gentle and ordinary. He celebrates love in The Selected Paul Durcan, with "Anna Swanton": "I live in greater terror of the thought/Of life without Anna Swanton on this earth …/I'd rather rain for ever in the fields with Anna Swanton/Than a car or a goddess in the sun." Reminiscent of the English romantic poets, Durcan's delight in nature emerges in "Birth of a Coachman." This poem, describing a symbolic journey, exemplifies Durcan's smooth and melodic style: "Sailing full furrow through the Curragh of Kildare,/Through the thousand sea-daisies of a thousand white sheep." Durcan "comes across as a good, brave and independent man," Michael Hofmann pointed out in his Times Literary Supplement critique, "capable of saying what it takes some courage to say."
Durcan continues expressing his contempt for oppression and violence with the 1983 publication Jumping the Train Tracks with Angela, a volume that met with mixed critical reaction. Some reviewers faulted Durcan for his unstructured form, calling his poems wordy and often rambling; others consider his style conversational, lending a whimsical tone to his observations. Durcan is joking, roguish, and even biting in this volume, as evidenced in "The Problem of Fornication in the Blarney Chronicle" and "The Perfect Nazi Family Is Alive and Well and Prospering in Modern Ireland." In contrast, the second half of Jumping the Train Tracks embodies a more emotional tone, exploring feelings of loneliness, frustration, and love. In a Times Literary Supplement article, David Profumo concluded that "this more sentimental, celebratory vein shows Durcan at his best," while in the British Book News Martin Booth added that "there is not a mediocre poem" in the entire volume.
In his 1985 collection, The Berlin Wall Café, Durcan, while maintaining his characteristic novelty, contemplates the intimate side of life. According to Seamus Heaney in the Irish Literary Supplement, it is "a book of laughter and remembering, a book which demonstrates the bearable heaviness of being." Durcan discusses the breakup of his own marriage, advocating a pro-feminine stance in writing, as cited by Hofmann: "Calmly I pledged her my prayer and affection,/Promising her never again to seek her out,/Never again in this city to darken her doorway,/To woo her only and always in the eternity of my loss:/Let us now praise famous women—and their children." Although some critics faulted the contemporaneousness of Durcan's subject matter, they generally acknowledged that the volume exceeded Jumping the Train Tracks. As Heaney proclaimed, The Berlin Wall Café "deepens [Durcan's] claim to be one of the most original and undaunted imaginations at work in our favor anywhere today."
Durcan won the prestigious Whitbread Poetry Prize for Daddy, Daddy. Although domestic in theme—the collection turns on the death of Durcan's father—the poems in Daddy, Daddy also revolve around political, social, and religious issues. "'Teach the Protestants a lesson,'" Durcan quotes his father as saying in one poem, as cited by Giles Foden in the Times Literary Supplement. In other verses Durcan mocks the notion of the "singing" Irish poet and offers commentary on poet Seamus Heaney's involuntary role as leader of the Irish renaissance. Durcan's verbal deftness is also demonstrated in the collection, as Foden noted, when the poet writes, "One was alone in the pit of oneself, knitting needles." The critic commended Durcan's play on "knitting"—used both as part of an appositive and a verb—and observed that only an oral reading of the poem can convey the poet's intended interpretation. Durcan is "adept at drawing meaning out of the fugitive situation of poetry reading in more than a simply melodramatic sense," stated Foden. He "is a raconteur of the highest order."
"Not that poems about parents … can't also be love poems … [but] Durcan carries the filial art to new extremes," wrote Blake Morrison of Daddy, Daddy in the London Review of Books. Peggy O'Brien, in the Irish Literary Supplement, also found the work fresh, noting that "Investigating his complicated feelings for his father has enabled Durcan to utilize the subtle revelation of emotional accuracy, always present in his work, more than the shock of outlandish gesture, sometimes too much there. It's the surprise of reality without makeup rather than the jolt of a punk adolescent mask, black and white with a slash of red….Like a nun married to God, Durcan lets intense, consuming love of his idealized father, an unconventional admission for a man, give complete meaning to these poems."
Durcan's love for the visual arts translates into poems written for paintings, films, and photographs, and he has collaborated with both painters and musicians, including Van Morrison. His Crazy about Women is a volume of poems based on a collection of forty-six paintings and three sculptures in an exhibition Durcan curated for the National Gallery of Ireland. Kathleen McCracken, in her review for the Irish Literary Supplement, praised Durcan's work: He "has spoken of the artist as a kind of Houdini, someone who ties him or herself up and then has to change shape, become something, or someone, else to discover the way out. Metamorphosis, it seems to me, describes precisely the dynamics of Crazy about Women—paintings becoming poems, poems changing the way we look at paintings, modifying fixed notions about art, 'literature,' the boundaries between disciplines."
Give Me Your Hand is a similar collection of poetry written for paintings in the National Gallery, London, including Gainsborough's "Mr. and Mrs. Andrews," Jan van Eyck's "The Arnolfini Marriage," and Beccafumi's "An Unidentified Scene." "A great many of these poems are monologues, confidently done," stated Michele Roberts in a New Statesman piece. "The poet inhabits any role or gender he likes." Roberts did, however, fault Durcan for his occasional "relentless vernacular, supposedly adequate for summoning different selves, [which] both grates and falters, as when moist gussets are made to stand for feminine private activities in ['An Unidentified Scene']." Writing in the London Observer, Kate Kellaway called the volume "a fascinating book to read because one becomes the third point in a triangle of feeling, connecting the paintings … to the poems." She continued: "He makes a success of this book because his poems are never docile, nor in service to the work they describe. They have independent life. They swan off, poke fun, even betray their subjects. It's one of the book's pleasures that Durcan stirs our imagination also, reminding us that when we look at paintings, we invent, in however slipshod a fashion, our own stories about them."
A selection of Durcan's old and new material forms the collection A Snail in My Prime. Published in 1995, it provides readers with the opportunity to review Durcan's work over his lifetime to date. "You can see how his work derives from Kavanagh's late poems," noted Spectator critic James Simmons. "The most immediately attractive aspect of [Durcan's] work is the comic/satirical monologues. These are akin to good scripts by, say [the comedian] Lenny Bruce." In the Times Literary Supplement Bernard O'Donoghue noted, "Before the Whitbread Prize, it was found difficult to know quite what to make of Durcan. The dislocated, conversational vernacular of his zany verse-narratives made him an excellent performer of his own work, associating him with performance poets such as Allen Ginsberg and the Liverpool Beat poets rather than with the mainstream." O'Donoghue continued, "Not that there is anything wrong with that; but Durcan also seemed to have aspirations toward something more exalted. His work was characterized very variously: as mystical or surrealist as well as whimsical and declamatory." He concluded: "The new book provides an interesting implicit self-commentary by Durcan. The thirteen new poems are a substantial group; while their style is as before—loose, informal, chatty, repetitive—he now seems to be attempting to unyoke the surrealist from the whimsical."
By the time A Snail in My Prime was published, Durcan had become as renowned for his poetry readings as for the verses themselves. Noted James Simmons in the Spectator, "Although his readings are famous, it would be wrong to call him a 'performance poet,' he is rather a poet who is also a good performer. Part of his strength is his openness to life and art, low and high, to politics and philosophy, his awareness that in the poetry world dullness and vanity are more common than excitement and truth." A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that Durcan is "phenomenally popular" in Ireland for his readings, befitting the image of a man who "writes above all to be understood." That tendency was reinforced with Durcan's 1999 release, Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil: One Hundred Poems. This 257-page "whopper" of a collection, as Booklist reviewer Ray Olson described it, takes an autobiographical journey through the years of Mary Robinson's presidency in Ireland (a Durcan poem was read at her inauguration). This heralded a time when Ireland, said Olson, "shook off its stodgy image" and afforded the poet the opportunity to travel abroad. An Economist critic suggested that Durcan's talent as a reciter of poetry does not translate to the page in Greetings. The reviewer said that the poet "has a way of delivering his words which make them sound astonishingly musical and brilliantly, aptly chosen," but "those same words, curiously, fail to ignite" on the printed page. Olsen did not share this view, concluding that the collection's "fluent free verse rivets attention." David Kirby, writing for the New York Times Book Review, found the collection "a book of sly pleasures—of, for example, Durcan and a friend reading lazily in a Dublin bookstore: 'Oh yes! Behind the bookshelves!/Like two haymakers siestaing/Behind a haycock in Provence.'"
For all his acclaim, Durcan has been frustrated at being labeled as performance poet or, in the light of his often outrageous and theatrical verse, not a poet at all. "That really depressed me," he told Sunday Times interviewer Mick Heany. "For me it's all about language and technique. You go over something trying to find the right word, not to mention the right metre and rhythm. You put in all those hours and then somebody writes that it's not poetry at all, it's prose masquerading as poetry." With 2001's Cries of an Irish Caveman, the poet again balances "the offbeat with the reflective," Heaney said. "There are traces of the quirkiness which have hampered Durcan's reputation," he added, but "this time out, … there is also an anguished relief: anguish at the death of close friends and the sudden end of a long-term relationship, tempered by relief at merely being alive." In another Sunday Times piece, Alan Brownjohn compared the "undiminished energy [and] appealing, freewheeling craziness" characteristic of Durcan with the "unironical seriousness" of several poems in Cries of an Irish Caveman. The poet's elegies to his deceased friends, for example, are done "splendidly," according to Brownjohn. But at the same time, the "Irish Caveman" of the title poem is not a man, but a bovine in love with his farm's mistress. Brownjohn concluded that "Durcan's following will be pleased that this wildly original poet is still going a bit too far."
In an entry for Contemporary Poets, Thomas McCarthy noted that during his prolific poetic outing Durcan has created "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."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Colm, Taoibain, editor, The Kilfenora Teaboy: A Study of Paul Durcan, New Island Books (Dublin, Ireland), 1996.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 43, 1987, Volume 70, 1992.
Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Durcan, Paul, The Selected Paul Durcan, edited with an introduction by Edna Longley, Blackstaff (Belfast, Ireland), 1982.
Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, Volume 1, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Harmon, Maurice, editor, The Irish Writer and the City, Barnes & Noble (New York, NY), 1983.
Booklist, June 1, 1999, Ray Olson, review of Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil: One Hundred Poems, p. 1774.
British Book News, May, 1984.
Economist, March 18, 2000, "Whose Voice Is It Anyway?," p. 14.
Encounter, November, 1986.
Guardian, September 13, 1990, Carol Ann Duffy, "In a Glass Lightly," p. 24; March 23, 1994, John Mulholland, "Ways of Seeing," p. 26.
Irish Literary Supplement, spring, 1986; spring, 1988; spring, 1991, Peggy O'Brien, "Braving Personal Themes," p. 9; spring, 1992, review of Crazy about Women, p. 5.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1999, review of Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil, p. 1444.
Linen Hall Review, December, 1990, James Simmons, review of Daddy, Daddy, pp. 29-30.
London Magazine, July, 1983.
London Review of Books, February 21, 1991, Blake Morrison, review of Daddy, Daddy, p. 14.
New Statesman, November 11, 1983; March 2, 1984 October 8, 1993, review of A Snail in My Prime: New and Selected Poems, p. 40; April 8, 1994, Michele Roberts, "Word Pictures," p. 40.
New York Times Book Review, November 7, 1999, David Kirby, review of Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil. Observer (London, England), March 11, 1984; January 26, 1986; August 29, 1993, review of A Snail in My Prime, p. 53; March 6, 1994, Kate Kellaway, "When Every Picture Tells a Poem," p. 22; March 20, 1994, review of Give Me Your Hand, p. 21; June 28, 1999, review of Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil, p. 11.
Publishers Weekly, November 25, 1996, review of Christmas Day, p 71; June 28, 1999, review of Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil, p. 75.
Spectator (London, England), November 30, 1991; May 1, 1993, James Simmons, review of A Snail in My Prime, p. 31.
Stand, autumn, 1991, p. 82; spring, 1994, review of A Snail in My Prime, p. 39.
Sunday Times (London, England), October 1, 2001, Mick Heaney, "Poetically Incorrect" (interview),p. 14; November 18, 2001, Alan Brownjohn, "Bondi, Bullocks and the Book of Kells," p. 45.
Times Educational Supplement, May 14, 1999, review of Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil, p. 13.
Times Literary Supplement, August 19, 1983; September 28, 1984; May 30, 1986; November 23, 1990, Giles Foden, "A Permanent Performance," p. 1273; May 28, 1993, Bernard O'Donoghue, review of A Snail in My Prime, p. 28; September 10, 1999, Richard Tyrrell, review of Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil, p. 23; February 15, 2002, review of Cries of an Irish Caveman, p. 30.
Women's Journal, December, 1994, review of Give Me Your Hand, p. 18.
Women's Studies, October, 2000, Joseph Lennon, "Man Writing: Gender in Late Twentieth-Century Irish Poetry," p. 619.
Complete Review,http://www.complete-review.com/ (July 24, 2002), review of A Snail in My Prime.