On Saturday afternoon at the Dublin Book Festival the poets Harry Clifton, Moya Cannon, Mary O'Donnell, Judith Mok and Michael O'Loughlin came together to discuss poets and poetry that had influenced and inspired them over the years.
The chairing of the discussion, in Peter Sirr's absence, was taken by Michael O'Loughlin. Explaining the origin of the idea, Michael O'Loughlin explained that with Peter Sirr he had been discussing the 'European muse' for years and felt that recent events had focused our minds more on our relationship with Europe. In asking how Europe was to be considered a 'muse', they felt that it was to be seen as a source of creativity and inspiration.
Michael O'Loughlin lived for many years in Europe before returning to Dublin and has translated the Dutch poet Gerrit Achterberg. His choice of European poet to read from was the Polish poet Tadeusz Rosewicz, with the poem 'The Survivor' with it's opening and closing stanza "I am twenty-four/ led to slaughter/ I survived" and the honest factual line of "The way of killing men and beast is the same/ I've seen it". Rosewicz was not one of the great Polish poets O'Loughlin admitted, but as a youth he had been led to believe a poem looked different from this and should be about nature and landscape. On first seeing this poem with it's short line layout, he felt that it was addressed to him and assuaged his imagination. He further added that in the late 70s/ early 80s he had felt like the 'eternal exile', as Dermot Bolger said, and this poem at this time spoke to him. He commented that there was a danger of obsession with European poetry and that, of course, translation mediated how we read it.
Harry Clifton, Ireland Professor of Poetry lived in Europe for sixteen years, ten of those in France. On the subject of what Europe meant to him, he explained that while he lived there he felt protective against his own language of European influences. As a student he had been taken with the influx of translated poetry organised by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort (co-founders of the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation). At that time he was tired with English poets and felt ready for the sound of something else. He read the first two stanzas from 'The Song of Wandering Aengus' by William Butler Yeats, starting "I went out to the hazel wood,/ Because a fire was in my head,". Clifton commented how this poem encapsulated the school world of nationalism and folk and nature mysticism. It had he said wonderfully song-like metres and the individual words were clear to everybody as was its meaning. It was, he said, a beautiful poem, but not very useful.
Clifton said how many of the poets had come from an aural background and they wanted something tougher in the sound of the language. He stumbled upon this other world of poetry instigated by Ted Hughes and found it different to the ear and exciting. Talking of his choice of poet, the Italian Eugenio Montale, he said how his work was not stanzaic as regular Irish poetry was and that there was 'something quite muddy and obscure' about it. It was Hermetic poetry, poetry of the inner world. Reading 'The Arc' in his beautiful mellow voice, Clifton commented that Montale's poem was not understandable but emotionally exciting; it had something to do with domestic life blown away by a huge catastrophe but we are not sure. It was a piece of writing that gave a permission to write in an emotional logic and in this way he had found Irish poetry to be rather self-centred.
Mary O'Donnell said that it was the stories of Eastern Block football stadiums packed with people who had come to hear poets read that had attracted her to European poetry- there was obviously something very different going on. It was not better or more exotic, just different. At that time certain things were not acceptable to Irish poetry, and it had a need for concrete details. The Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann, whom Mary O'Donnell had chosen as her European poet, did not need concrete detail. Bachmann had a background in philosophy and her experience was of invasion as Austria was taken over by Germany. She was, Mary explained, a Bohemian wandering poet and she carried this sense of invasion for life, being 'interested in the redemptive power of love but with a melancholic tone'. Reading 'Timelapse' with the first and last lines "Harder times are ahead", she commented that many years later she had picked up on this theme to write her own similarly structured poem 'Turn Season'. Mary said that Bachmann was a deadly serious poet and she was allowed to be, she was not required to be entertaining and her poems had given Mary a sense of affirmation and stopped her avoiding contemporary agendas.
Judith Mok, writer and classical singer explained to the audience that there had always been several languages in her house. Dutch born, her father was a poet and they moved to France when she was eight. Always familiar with poetry from her father and his friends she hardly ever read poetry in translation, always reading it in it's own language-Spanish, Russian, Dutch. Talking of Yeats, she said that it never occured to them that he was not a 'European' poet and had only discovered the concept of 'European poetry' when she moved to Ireland. In fact she never saw herself as 'European' until she went to America.
Her first influence in poetry was in French at school, Baudelaire, Verlaine for example. Reading 'L'Invitaion au Voyage' from 'Flowers of Evil' by Baudelaire in French and in St. Vincent Millay's translation she said how much nicer sounding this was for a romantic teenager than harsh Dutch poetry. She then read Friedrich Holderlin's 'Halfte des Lebens' (Half of Life), with the final line "Kirren die Fahnen" (Weather cocks clatter) which she so liked. She said how this was a poem to read for the sound in the original language and was not the same when translated, yet we have to and that was the paradox.
Moya Cannon felt that good poems travel in most mysterious ways. Recalling her introduction to European poetry at seventeen she said how she felt it was full of excitement and she commented on the permissions that you got from reading translations. Now we have access to so many translations but this was not always so. When she first came across Michael Smith's translations she said they 'blew my mind'. Talking of the Spanish poet Antoni Machado, she explained how he was a very interesting mix of influences. He moved from Spain to Paris and was influenced by Symbolism. He eventually died fleeing Franco's forces but he was profoundly political and philosophical, but not in an explicit way. There is music and cadences in his poetry but they are profoundly understated and yet still powerful. Moya explained that assonance in Spanish was very important and the recurring vowel sounds affect us in different ways. Machado, she said, wanted a 'deep stirring of the human spirit' and to her that was a great permission in the ecclesiastical Ireland of the 1970s. Moya added that when you are drawn to a poet or poem you can't say why and that it retains some mystery. Reading a Machado poem in Spanish she also read Michael Smith's translation ending with the powerful line "the story forgotten/ The sorrow told on." She also read 'Renacimiento' ('Rebirth') in Spanish and as translated by Robert Bly.
After a thoroughly interesting and enlightening talk, Michael O'Loughlin concluded that we had certainly seen the muse in action but that it was hard to summarise it in a communique. The event was sponsored by Poetry Ireland.