Wednesday, April 19, 2006


The last two poets I witnessed at Poetry Ireland's Damar Hall basement space in Stephen's Green were Fergus Allen and Canada's Poet Laureate like Gary Geddes, a retired poetry professor.

Fergus Allen is an eighty five year old native of Waterford, who has been resident in England for the past fifty years and the poetry in his latest book,
  • Gaslight and Coke
  • , is a recalling and revisiting by him to the landscape of his Irish childhood.

    He was topping the bill several weeks ago, launching this latest collection from Dedalus Press, whose founder, Achill poet John F Deane, recently handed over its running to Pat Boran; poet, editor, publisher, broadcaster and affirmational proselytizer of poesy. Gaslight and Coke was introduced by Boran with the words "never explain, never apologise"; after which Allen took possession of the lectern and led us through six poems in a clipped and precise voice with impeccably correct modulations, softened by a barely perceptible Irish brouge.

    Allen's own short précis of his Ars Poetica sketched a self-portrait of necessary detachment, suggesting to us that some Romantic-Modernist hybrid of fuel-mixture was responsible for motoring the engine of his poetic identity; that a cross-breed Wordsworthean-Eliot like artisan is the mechanic at play in his linguistic workshop.

    This dichotic register was one of a poet-as-nature's-instrument in spontaneous overflow, whose reservoir of language oozes from unconscious depths through to surface and combine under the awareness and intellect of a verbal creator who configures his work at one intentional remove from the intended audience and who, in his own words, "just arranges the words on the page to affect your thoughts and feelings."

    Allen's expression of belief that his job is that of an emotionally removed, plastic-like conduit who is all technician, allowed the audience only partial access to and appreciation of the full accomplishment of his work when listening to him read; as Allen’s self consciousness of his role-as-poet imposed an energy of seperation between him and his audience.

    But one detects that behind the stance of detachment, this slightly po-faced surface of the poet-mask Allen wears is, in fact, an ironic device intended, in part, to dissolve the buffer of seriousness which can keep an audience at bay from a poet at readings. Ironically stating that his poems are "most impersonal" and "gloomy", and that he "wouldn’t be a proper poet if they weren’t gloomy", did little to disperse or displace the membrane of loftiness he alluded to, as his opening address created an over-reaching on his part which, I suspect, was due to being rusty live, as it was clear that his primary want was to connect on a human level.

    That said, the technical quality of the six poems he read were of a high order, displaying the deft, neat and sure footedness of an experienced poet fashioning moments and events from familial remembrances and history into a poetry whose language is marked by a verbal intracy and low key but unmistakable confidence sprouting from its stout metrical efficacy.

    "Newsmen’s flashes flickered...angels on the prowl...unfamiliar gravity...pale faces hung from upturned pupils," and most memorable of all "black is something abstract like an absence."

    The example Allen offers to the neophyte writer is analogous to Heaney offering us Yeats in his 1978 University of Surrey lecture, Yeats As An Example?" The Sligo Magus’s later period is invoked as that which "reminds you that revision and slog work are what you may have to undergo if you seek the satisfaction of finish."

    Work of Allen’s "finish" and intricacy is seldom the result of several easy drafts, and his "arranging" is the labour intensive product which comes when skilful word conjurers couple an initial linguistic yielding of the first poetical dig to a solid sense of the conductor composing a verbal score by continual refinement and contemplation until, by sheer repetition and practice over many years, the hard won skill emerges, mirrored in the work itself.

    Gary Geddes's read at Damar Hall last Thursday 13 April, and his public persona was markedly more at home and at ease with itself than Allen’s; no doubt due to his former career as a creative writing teacher with a continuous and regular reading schedule in pockets and boltholes of poetry throughout the globe. More old pro than older poet, but with an obvious and innate human warmth of a kind which an audience can sense from the off, and which immediately melts the barriers and misconceptions of the kind prevalent at Allen's reading, by closing whatever divide exists between the words "poet" and "person."

    A natural and unforced spirit I have witnessed in few poets and one which is indicative of a writer comfortable in their own skin as someone who betrays no outward sign of wishing to impress an audience by overtly advertising their poet-ness. The "shiny armour of Moi" is conspicuous by its absence. This is because they investigate, conquer, carve out and create inward realms from the territory of their imagination and successfully export the resulting fantasy to a wider external reality of conscious utterance, where onlookers apprehend and appreciate it’s validity and affirm it as art accurately reflecting and echoing existence in its most fundamental aspect.

    Poetry itself in the pure Aristotelean form of mimesis, making to understand why we humans stretch out a hand and attempt to draw rational patterns from the cosmos in a desire to celebrate the civilising potential of our human condition and proclaim belief in it.

    Pat Boran exudes this quality, as does Jim Bennet who has the most comprehensive poetry listings site on the internet,
  • Poetry Kit
  • , along with fellow Liverpudlian, Jimmy McGovern. These three are all writers whose personal backgrounds are conducive to staying grounded and maintaining a no nonsense approach to literature which treats the listener as a fellow human conspiritor in the melioristic effort of improving society's aesthetic well being through personal example.

    Geddes dispenses with all vestige of formality, opting instead for a conversationalist approach of drawing the audience into intimacy by confidently using the space and making it his own. Many poets at book launches and professional readings who do not have much live experience are understandably nervous and some conceal it better than others. However, the main consequence of a lack of live experience is to use the lectern as a safety shield, behind which one can fight to keep a state of outward calm, concentrating on the unknocking of knees and getting to the end of the set, instead of yielding to the dynamic of the moment.

    Geddes took possession of the lectern and, sensing the distance this created between him and his audience, instinctively moved in front of it to inject a feeling of instant connection; demonstrating that he was alive to the reality of the situation, his position in it and, crucially, the most direct and effective way of realising the full potential of that situation. He has seen beyond the props of podium and social fourth wall convention many poets are unable to operate without, and places reflexivity over rigidity, comfortably adopting an adaptable approach which means he will extemporise instead of disguising any lack of vision of the true self behind the cloak of a book.

    The more a poet reads or performs to others, the more public confidence they acquire, and all performers, be they poets, singers or actors, have to go through a live apprenticeship before they can achieve a degree of performance-readiness which cannot be faked and which sets the competent apart from the very best.

    Geddes has this in spades, seamlessly segueing from introduction to poem with effortless élan which never sounds rehearsed or stilted. He dares to reveal his humanity and his experience allows him the luxury of being unconcerned about the odd stumble or hiccup as he reads; book in hand to prompt him as he looks out off the page and into the audience, performing his work more from memory than script.

    Whereas Allen’s opening gambit was to announce himself from a rarefied Yeatsean elevation, like a priest at mass intoning a homily of his creed and demanding the tilted gaze of a detached audience, Geddes’s ploy was the self-deprecating position of a secular and direct eye-level address, which enervates empathy and solicits genuine interest form the audience.

    He began with the John Marquis quote about the launching of a new poetry collection being as significant as "dropping a feather in the grand Canyon and waiting to hear the echo", which, at a stroke, removed all expectation and pre-conception from the audience to let Geddes get on with reading his work; something he and the audience clearly enjoyed.

    The first poem was titled Johnny Bunn, the only student he ever inflicted corporal punishment on, and who became a firm friend over the course of time. Johnny Bunn appeared in his second, pastoral poem, giving us a window on and sense of the real life of a poet whose first impulse comes, not from the academy, but from the mundane and universal events of daily experience. All the poems of his I have read are in first person narrative, and he draws from and presents us with his own experiences, as well as donning the mask of numerous real and imagined figures from various historical points the sweep of his career has concerned itself with.

    But what marked Geddes out was the enlightening and entertaining way he managed to weave and link his poems and introductory anecdotes together, keeping the listener fixed on him by a process of accreditation which created a bond whose viscosity thickened as the night wore on, adhering poet and audience together in a shared communal experiencing of humanly accessible art.

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