Monday, February 12, 2024

'Life' - a poem

I was invited to read a poem at the opening ceremony of the conference 'Schrödinger at 75 - The Future of Biology' held at my alma mater Trinity College Dublin in autumn 2018. I was surprised when I arrived at the bustling crowd and TV cameras gathered all around as I made my way up the marble staircase to the beautiful old Schrödinger Theatre in the School of Physics. To be clear, they - the crowds and cameras - were obviously not there for me but the luminaries gathered, including, I believe, four Nobel Laureates. It was only then that I became aware that the event marked the beginning of the largest genetics conference to be ever held in Europe (up to that point) concerning itself with the future of the discipline.

The conference was organised by Prof Luke O'Neill (very well-known to us all now in Ireland as the 'Voice of Science to the Nation' during the Covid pandemic) and these opening occasions are really there to create a soft landing to proceedings with some 'cultural colour', so that all the gathered guests can relax before the real work of the conference begins the next day. As a 'scientist-poet', who has performed in this role before, I knew the drill: read a nice, lyric poem on the theme of science to set us off on a night of anecdotes and reminiscences about Herr Dr Schrödinger in Dublin (and what a fascinating and philosophically-minded man he was), before retiring to the splendour of the Trinity Long Room Library for wine and crepes. 

The poem 'Life' though, is neither nice nor safe, especially to read in front of a room full of distinguished geneticists. The poem was included in my second collection, On Light & Carbon, a book that was written as a direct response to the genetic reductionism of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and this piece itself was intended as an explicit caution against slipping towards the scientistic view of the human condition expressed in that book. The Genome was not then, nor is it now, nearly as well-understood as we are led to believe and that 'ruminative' gap in our knowledge is constantly understated and underplayed by both scientists in the field and the media in general. To this list we may now add policy makers. (The Human Genome may have been 'sequenced' in 1999 but we do not have a Rosetta Stone to decode it. I think the public might be very surprised to learn that.)

So here it is: my nice, safe little poem to kick off a genetic conference - a poem that warned against a denatured genetic reductionist view of the human condition that sadly, in the short time since I presented it, seems a view that is, in fact, taking over our culture. It was, at least, gratifying on the night that several of the esteemed scientists gathered in the Long Room Library for wine and conversation afterwards, spoke to me and thanked me for my contribution. They understood exactly what I was saying. 

Richard Dawkins may or may not be correct in saying that belief in God is a delusion. I would suggest, however, that a far greater delusion is for scientists like him to believe (and it is a belief) that they might play at being gods in his absence. It is a massively hubristic overstatement of our knowledge at this point. Perhaps a little more reverence, respect and humility towards 'Dame Kind' would be a more appropriate response in our current state of (mostly) unknowing. 


‘To live, to err, to fall, to triumph,
and to re-create life out of life.’
                                           – James Joyce
All morning the feeling
of spirit failing me,
the neo-Darwinian certainties
unmaking me piece by piece,
thought by restless thought.
I see everything as though
it was true, genes jostling
in the chemical stew
to divide and propagate
and perpetuate, they
the only survivors
from our fleeting lives.
I feel my heart as empty
as if it were real, that
every impulse to good
is motivated by gain,
that each loving act is a sham
expecting reciprocation in turn.
Yet, I remember this to be wrong,
that we are more than that
which makes us; that life is not
just chemistry alone but kinship also –
that we see through eyes
and know by touch,
that we are better than the worst
in each of us.


from On Light & Carbon (London: Ward Wood Publishing, 2013)


Monday, August 17, 2020

Street Light Amber print edition now available

I'm delighted to report that the print edition of my new collection Street Light Amber is now available. Given the current fluid circumstances surrounding Covid and the ever-changing guidance, I have decided to not launch the collection. This is a great disappointment and nothing compares to the excitement of a launch night. I do hope, though, that you might consider buying a copy. All a writer wants, above all else, is for their work to reach an audience. The rest is just a bonus.

After an absence of three years, the narrator's lover returns. The two slowly begin the tentative process of regaining trust against the backdrop of the city streets of their past. Street Light Amber is a chamber piece, a study in obsession and the metaphysical state of disorientation it leaves in its wake, haunted at its core by love lost and the hope that it might yet be restored.  



Street Light Amber can be ordered from The Book Depository (with free worldwide delivery), Amazon UK and Waterstones. The Kindle edition of the book can also be found at Amazon.

I am very proud of the work in this narrative collection and I really hope some of you may be tempted to buy the collection and if you do you have my heartfelt gratitude.

For now, I'm just so pleased to have the print edition now available. My thanks to my publisher Ward Wood for making it happen during these difficult times.


Sunday, April 19, 2020

David Butler 'launches' Street Light Amber (Kindle)

The Imaginary Bookshop

Welcome to my blog for the ‘launch’ of my fourth poetry collection Street Light Amber. Obviously, I would’ve loved to have done this is a personal setting but given the nature of the times – which puts everything else in perspective, of course – I have had to improvise to make some small happening for the birthing of the Kindle edition of this collection (a print copy not being viable right now, again due to our present circumstance). I asked the poet David Butler if he might be willing to introduce the book and I’m delighted that he accepted that invitation.

David is a very talented man. He is an accomplished novelist and playwright and has been known to take to the footlights on occasion. He is also a multi-linguist and has translated the selected poems of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. Above all else though, I love his poetry which manages to achieve the high-wire act of being both highly wrought and virtuoso, while managing to remain immediate and felt. He has published two full collections, Via Crucis in 2011 and All the Barbaric Glass in 2017, which I had the great pleasure and honour to launch in the Irish Writers' Centre. Truly, both these collections reveal a deeply committed and extraordinary talent.

Naturally, I am thrilled that David returned the compliment in agreeing to launch this book for me. It was initially assumed that the launch would take the form of a bookshop event, but the very difficult events we are living through have made creating a print edition impossible, for now at least, as my publisher’s printer and distributor are closed during this period and understandably so.

However, I’m delighted that we can publish the book as a Kindle edition (links below) and while publishing a book online like this will never replicate the excitement of a launch night, I’m so happy to be able to mark this occasion in some small way. David has been a soldier and written up his launch notes at short notice and I sincerely thank him for that. I will say a little more after them, for now, I want to sincerely thank him and express my appreciation for the hard work and lucidity he brought to bear on them. So here is what he has to say:

David Butler

Dating back certainly as far as his 2011 debut collection, In the Library of Lost Objects, Noel Duffy has a long-standing interest in the past – how we shape it as much as how it shapes us; how memories are lost or retrieved; how individual moments may be ‘snatched from the passionate transitory’, in Patrick Kavanagh’s memorable phrase. After two intervening collections that drew more heavily on his scientific background and interests, Duffy’s fourth collection, Street Light Amber, marks a return to this fertile territory.

The collection is framed by an evocative, identically repeated poem whose protagonist might be taken as an objective correlative for the poetic persona – a solitary figure working in the Post Office’s Department of Dead Letters who nightly undertakes his duty ‘to piece together the clues / and runes of misspelt addresses, the half-remembered / names, the scrawling handwriting,’ while, of the figure himself, ‘everything in his life is late or lost’. Like the unnamed nocturnal worker, the poet of Street Light Amber has left somewhere behind him ‘the outline of a woman’s body, a question mark / against the sheets.’

What differentiates the poet from the night-worker is that the clues and runes he must sort through and decipher relate to fragments of his own past, as memorably captured in the poem ‘Triage’. Here, the poet discharges the contents of pockets and wallet onto the kitchen table, then examines ‘the debris of a life like some hidden message, / caution to the man who seeks redemption / in the triage of lost things laid out before him.’ Among these items (note the aptness of the enjambment) is: ‘a passport booth snapshot photo of you / and me’. Indeed it is noteworthy that the majority of the poems, (I count 21 out of 33), take the form of an apostrophe to this lost love, fragments of a shared past addressed directly to ‘you’, or incorporating ‘we’. Only in ‘Snapshot’ has this directly addressed ‘you’ finally become a ‘she’, perhaps suggesting some sort of distance has finally been achieved.

Photography is a repeated trope by which the poet addresses the collection’s overriding concern with time and memory. ‘Darkroom Notes’ describes with beautiful precision the image of an old hotel ‘emerging in the red gloom of the darkroom, / the filigree of the ironwork window boxes painted over / in the double-exposure of memory’s flashbulb / and the rust of time passing.’ ‘Night Walking’ is an account of the poet’s Kinsella-like peregrinations through the sleeping city carrying a camera with which to capture ‘life stilled and recycled’; while ‘Girl in Window’ suggests how both colour and motion are ‘frozen to a moment in the monochrome film.’ Is there a parallel between a photo’s relationship to a living moment and a poem’s? (c.f. Wordsworth’s origin of poetry as emotion recollected in tranquillity). The poem ‘The Last Day of Summer’ would seem to suggest as much, beginning: ‘Life must stop for an instant / before it continues, the moment / lived a second time in the room of memory, / a ghost image in the mind.’

Noel Duffy has a talent for capturing images with photographic precision. There is ‘the smoke fluttering away / with the delicacy of silk turning / in a beam of light,’ (‘The Last Day of Summer); ‘the vaulting glass of the Victorian palm house, / the slam of humid heat that meets us as we enter,’ (‘The Botanical Gardens’); while in ‘Touch’, within a glass of mint tea, the poet describes ‘the sun brought down and contained in the liquid.’ But what if the memories, the repeated encounters with ghost images, are painful and unwanted? The unbidden past appears to haunt the poet in ‘Reflection in Darkness’ in which a sideward glance catches ‘the shadow / of my face in the mirror, the sockets sunk, the skull /and bone-house that traps and cradles the mind / in its sleeping library of half-forgotten scenes.’ These aren’t necessarily the most emotionally charged memories, for as the collection’s title poem warns, ‘the most casual things are what / ambush the mind.’ If you are looking for a manifesto for the effectiveness of art, you might do worse than take this last idea to heart.


Photo: Paul Malone

I’m so pleased to receive David’s astute and sharply keen observations on my work. He really is one of the finest poet writing today in Ireland and I’m so honoured to have him mark the occasion of the publication of this book with such generous and perceptive remarks. He has my profound thanks and I, for one, greatly look forward to his next collection, which I understand is in the pipeline, though won’t be out in the world for a while yet. It will, no doubt, be worth the wait.

I just thought I would lead on from here by making some small remarks on Street Light Amber. The collection could also be considered as a cycle of narrative love poems albeit ones that operate rather more like a photo collage or mood-piece (as David alluded to) than an explicitly straightforward story. Given this, I really recommend you don’t just dip and skip around it. It is best served in chronology. Also, it is a short collection (though no easier to write for that) so you could read it in a single sitting, but then hopefully a second time and earn double your money’s worth from it. The poems chart and attempt to rebuild a relationship after a break of several years. Rather like Euridice returned unexpectedly from the underworld the two lovers try to give things another go against the red-brick houses, canals and Georgian houses of an unnamed city. Perhaps, in a reversal to that famous myth, the book asks the question is it love itself that will return us to the light of the cedar grove or destined to descend again to the shadowlands of that dark kingdom below it. 

I sincerely hope you enjoy these poems and I would be so pleased if you might be willing to buy the Kindle edition of collection and see what you make of it. I’m very proud of this work and I can say, despite its relatively short length, that it was a book that was very hard-won by, though no less enjoyable to write for that.

To end,  here are four poems to try to whet the appetite. 


Noticed in the stray moment, your hand
resting by the glass of mint tea on the table,
the sun brought down and contained in the liquid,
the green of its leaves reflected on your fingers.
Nothing then to disturb the composition
as my eye discovers again the contour of your touch,
its invisible look leaving no mark on your skin
as your hand moves and you reach for the glass,
raise it to your mouth, drink again.

The Botanical Gardens

You lean down close to the blossom, inhale deeply;
the stem straight, the perfect contours of the stamen,
the tight, precise folds of containing petals. There is
a sadness in the opulent grace of such things whose
season is passing. The August sunshine suddenly
darkens, the cloud thickening to rain. I take your hand
as we run to take cover, passing beneath the creepers
that climb the arching ironwork trellis of the entrance
to the rose garden. You pull tight your yellow overcoat
and we hurriedly make our way towards the shelter
of the vaulting glass of the Victorian palm house,
the slam of humid heat that meets us as we enter,
the intense odour of sweat reminding us of ourselves.
You shake away the rain and laugh as an old couple
walk slowly past, arm in arm, carrying each other along,
like the century flower that blooms only once in its lifetime,
but endures so many seasons to continue so.

The Last Day of Summer

Life must stop for an instant
before it continues, the moment
lived a second time in the room of memory,
a ghost image in the mind.
The sunlight shifts in the curtain lace,
your face framed by the window 
as you raise your cigarette to your mouth,
then exhale, the smoke fluttering away
with the delicacy of silk turning
in a beam of light, the ash straining
backwards by the weight of its own gravity,
then falling down onto your dress
without you noticing.


The cycle is complete. I look down at you, the silver
cross on your neck rising and falling as you sleep,
the blood moon’s crimson in the curtainless window
tangled in the autumn detail of bare branches.
A dog barks as if sensing the sky’s disturbance
and my own. I leave you there to my lingering mistake,
sneak quietly down the dimly lit landing
to the staircase and the hallway that leads to the kitchen,
the whiskey that waits in the cupboard,
falling again by trapdoors in every choice I make,
the promises I made to you but could not keep.

I just wish to end with a few thank yous and try not to make it sound it like an Oscar speech (you can find that in the acknowledgements in the book itself!). This collection went through many variations over several years and I want to sincerely thank Beth Phillips for always being available to discuss and critique it and to act as a sounding board and guide as I proceeded with it. Thanks also to James W. Wood for his keen interest and advice throughout and to Shauna Gilligan for her astute suggestion at a key juncture. I’d like to make a special thank you to my editor at Ward Wood Adele Ward. We have been working together for almost ten years over five books now and I’m always grateful to her for the loyalty and support, and above all the belief she has shown in my work throughout. Finally, my gratitude to Mike Wood for preparing this Kindle edition for publication and for all the other good work he does at the press.

On that note I will end. I hope you will like this collection and that it might pass a few hours in these difficult times and transport you from it for an hour or two. Unfortunately, there is no wine to be served at this ‘paperless’ launch. I wish we could have done this in person but I promise to buy you all one when the day comes!  

It just leaves me to say that I hope, if you buy this collection, it will reward the investment. The Kindle edition is available from today for £4.99 at Amazon in the UK.

I thank you all for coming along to this 'virtual' launch and I hope you will all keep safe and well in the coming times.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Interview with Shauna Gilligan, autumn 2013

I have decided to repost this interview on the publication of my collection On Light & Carbon with the novelist Shauna Gilligan from autumn 2013. Shauna has reconstructed her website since then so the link to this very worthwhile conversation is no longer available. Shauna is an author of great courage and curiosity and I urge you to visit her new site A Girl's Writing is Never Done. So here is our chat. I was particularly pleased to talk about the long centrepiece poem in the book 'Timepieces'. Hope you find it interesting.

  1. Noel, congratulations on your second poetry collection On Carbon & Light. This first question has two parts – tell me a little about the title and cover, they are both intriguing and, in what way do you feel your second collection links to your first, which was nominated for the Strong Award?

Well, I had the title for a poem called ‘On Light & Carbon’ for maybe ten years. I imagined it would be a kind of technical poem about photosynthesis and while it would crop up every now and then, I never managed to write it. When I started this collection in summer 2010, I finally approached it and the poem that resulted was totally different than one I envisaged, written in counterpoint and a naïve voice. That said, photosynthesis still made it in there. It struck me as I went on with the book and wrote quite a few science poems about light, as well as another about carbon, that this would be a good title for the whole book. In a way, the poem also poses the central question of the collection, as it moves between religious notions of the nature of life and scientific ones that sometimes seem to override those. So, it may seem like a strange title, but it suits somehow. The cover idea really came from talking to an artist friend and he had planned to do the cover image by organically imposing the equation for photosynthesis onto actual leaves. In the end, we didn’t get around to it, but when I spoke to Mike at Ward Wood about the cover, I suggested we try to do something along those lines. So the leaves in sunlight and the equation came from that discussion. I think it’s quite striking.

To answer the second part of the question, this book connects in some ways to In the Library of Lost Objects, exploring the intimate dramas of life against the backdrop of science. Here though, I’ve replaced Natural History with human history and anthropology, for the most part, also exploring the role and meaning of myth and art in all this. So there is some cross-over, but I feel the tone is less lyrical and more metaphysical. I’ve also tried to push deeper into certain scientific ideas, but hopefully in a way that I bring the reader with me – whether they know much about science or not. That was part of the challenge.

  1. What was your general approach to writing poems in the book?

In the Library of Lost Objects had taken a long time to write as I often wrote fragments of poems and would add a bit and then leave it for months and then add something more. It was a very slow process, though oddly the three longer poems were written quite quickly in a kind of sprint over three or four days, and didn’t change that much after that. So, with this collection, it struck me to try that approach and see what might come out of it. One thing I found was when an idea or mood came it would immediately seem to suggest a title, but I also quickly realized I had to write a few lines down. This acted as a kind of key and a way back into the poem. Then, often the next day, I just riffed on the idea and wrote fragments down in a notebook. At a certain point, when I felt a poem was beginning to suggest itself, I would move all this onto the computer and generally very quickly find the shape and structure for the piece. I would then try to complete a decent draft on that day. Working this fast somehow led to the poems being not over-thought and often the results took me by surprise. I discovered that once I started this process, other ideas presented themselves and I would gather momentum. So I wrote like this for, say, three months at a time and would then stand back. Over three such (intense) spells of writing over a three year period, I produced the poems in the book – and a good deal more, I should add, that just didn’t quite fit the themes that came through most strongly over that time.

  1. I am interested, in particular, in ‘Timepieces’. Tell me about the genesis of this epic?

You know, there are a lot of poems about love or death or other subjects (I’ve written about them myself, of course) but very few about friendship, which is a bit odd when you consider the importance of friends in our lives. So this piece is about a friendship my dad struck up with a labourer at Dublin Bus, then known as CIE, where he worked in the late 70s. This man, PJ, turned out to be a respected amateur antiquarian and coin collector and drew my dad into his interests and they formed a great friendship through this, going to coin fares at the weekend or PJ coming over to teach my dad Ogham, which I explore in one section. Another crucial element to the poem is my perspective. It is really an initiation into both the adult world of male friendship, as well as how it awoke in me the excitement of the imagined past. I think it’s ultimately saying something about the power of art – both in terms of my dad and PJs story and my attempt to tell it.

So, I wanted this poem to be, in a sense, a kind of intimate epic, playing the ‘everyday’ notion of friendship against seemingly grand historical backdrops, such as Viking Dublin, or Imperial Rome. I’m reminded of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem ‘Epic’, which centres on a dispute between two farmers over a land boundary and how Homer’s ghosts whispers to him “I made the Iliad from such / A local row...”. This sentiment is central to the poem and is echoed in the final lines of the Viking section where my dad and PJ had found a Viking child’s leather shoe in the waste ground where the city council were dumping the soil removed from the Wood Quay site as they dug the foundations for new civic offices:
                        It was to me as this frail object found, opened
                        a clearing in my mind: the prow of a longship
                        approached from the horizon with its cargo
                        of stories. I leaned down close and listened.

So the events are first real-life ones, made epic in the telling – even if the language, in this case, is not what you might expect in an ‘epic’. So it is a narrative poem, certainly, but a fractured narrative reflecting the nature of memory, both personal and collective.

  1. Tell me about the writing of ‘Timepieces’ – did it evolve as you wrote it or did the idea come to you as a whole? I’m particularly interested in the back and forth of memory, imagined and real. 

Well, this was the one poem in the collection not written in the way I describe above. For a start it’s a long piece of 300 lines, so that put it on a different footing. In a way, the approach was similar to two long poems in sections from my first collection. I tried to come at the subject matter in a non-linear way and attack it from several angles, with jumps in perspective across sections. I found the shape of the poem came quite quickly, say within three or four weeks. This poem does something similar to those earlier long pieces, creating a fractured narrative of sorts that moves backwards and forward in time – both in the historical settings and the timeframe of the friendship itself. So its jumps and shimmies about us, mixing the history and the story of the friendship.

But by attempting to create this intimacy between the local and the historical, I also tried to use a quite casual, yet intimate, tone and the nature of the poetry had to reflect that. So much of the poem is written in a relaxed conversational and invitational voice. So is that poetry or prose? Some would say the latter, but I’d argue that I’m using a – let’s call it – flat-footed line, where the rhythm isn’t strident (for the most part) and the music of the piece is quiet and muted, though certainly poetry, I would argue. The challenge of rewriting this kind of ‘casual’ line, is that it is extremely tricky to get just right and, indeed, for it not to drift into prose. So, it actually took a long time to achieve that effect, massaging the music rather than imposing it. That really was quite a challenge. The other major issue was that with such rich subject-matter, there was so much more detail I included early on but had to cut in rewriting so that the poem didn’t get weighed down with too much narrative information. It’s long, but I knew I needed to keep it moving also. So, it took time to get that balance right also.

  1. When you were placing ‘Timepieces’ in On Carbon & Light, why did you place it where you did and did the editorial process effect how you put the collection together.

At about the mid-way point in writing the collection I had a lot of poems and started gathering them into some kind of coherent collection, which gave writing after that point a clearer focus. ‘Timepieces’ was actually one of the last poems to be written and accounts for nearly a quarter of the entire collection. So where I placed it was important. Rather like the poem itself, the narrative of the whole book shifts around in time, though generally drifts forward. The opening section deals with my university years studying physics, a time of both intellectual and emotional excitement. So the opening thirteen or so poems explore this part of my life. Then I shift back in time with two pieces about family and then ‘Timepieces’, which takes us basically to the mid-point of the collection. As I said earlier, this collection is less lyrical than my first and more metaphysical, but I realized this poem grounds the book. It is key in that sense, so I wanted that grounding at that juncture in the collection, before moving into the second half of the book, which mostly deals with hitting forty and the questions that asks of you, both personally and philosophically. It strikes me now, that a lot of the collection deals in different types of initiatory experience – those key moments of transition, and insight, in life. So perhaps that connects much of the material.

Thanks so much, Shauna, for asking such interesting questions. It was especially nice to get to talk at length about ‘Timepieces’. I really hope you, and others will enjoy that poem and the collection as a whole when it comes out in the coming weeks.  

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Stillness, Movement - the Line-Break in Poetry

I have noticed when talking to friends who are interested in poetry but perhaps not dedicated readers of it, that the use of the line-break in modern poetry often confuses, or even confounds, them. So I decided, as a challenge, to tackle the problem head-on and write this short essay to explain why (and how) poets use this device in their work. I also think it is very helpful for poets starting out to have a very clear grasp of why they are using 'the break' and the wide possibilities it presents to them. I hope, then, that this piece might be of help and interest to both groups: readers and purveyors of poetry. 

This essay first appeared in Poetry Ireland's literary pamphlet Trumpet, issue 7, late last year. My gratitude to editor Paul Lenehan for including it.

Stillness, Movement - the Line-Break in Poetry

When discussing the ‘line-break’ in poetry it is first necessary to talk about the difference between the ‘sentence’ and the ‘line’ itself. For the prose writer, the ‘sentence’ is their cornerstone. Through varying the sentence length, and manipulating it by adding cadence and pause, they create a complex craft from it as its unit of meaning. However, for the poet there is one added technique which is the line-break – the way a poem measures itself out in lines rather than sentences, most often to convey ‘movement’ through the poem. This gives rise to many intriguing and unique possibilities.

To begin, though, I will start with a ‘counter-example’: a poem that eschews the use of the line-break to convey its meaning and doesn’t rely on it for its movement. In the well-known poem ‘Gift’ by Czesław Miłosz, the poet simply uses nine simple statements ranging from the visual, the abstract and the emotional, with each line in the poem matching the sentence precisely and therefore shunning the obvious aspect of the ‘break’. Here are the four opening lines:

A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.

The absence of line-breaks here creates a sense of ‘stillness’, of tranquility, yet the poem continues to move (subtly) forward due to the variation in the length of the line/sentence, an effect sometimes referred to by prose writers as ‘modulation’.

A sense of harmony and stillness in a poem can proceed also, of course, by using a sentence that extends beyond one line. In Anne Sexton’s ‘The Truth the Dead Know’, written after her mother’s death, the piece opens with these lines:

Gone, I say and walk from the church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.

The statement of her ‘refusing’ the procession ‘to the grave’ is mirrored in the tightly controlled processional feeling of the lines, the effect somehow heightening the restrained grief. The first three lines ‘run-on’ but in such a way as there is a balance between the clauses and speech rhythms contained within each. Each line-break has a ‘soft’ quality until, quite brilliantly, Sexton uses the two short sentences embedded in one line to create a sense of deflated closure. Modulation can be a useful tool in poetry also, as proven here, as an inversion of our expectation that poetry mainly utilises the run-on line.

The line-break can also be used to enable a sense of strong movement through the lines of a poem, acting as a propulsive force, offering tension and then resolution with an ‘end-stopped line’. The Romantic poets often stretched the limits of the line-break to employ momentum through and across ‘the line’. An instructive example, from William Wordsworth, show us, in these lines, the ‘new’ expansion of the language of poetry:

It is a beauteous Evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity…

Enjambment (as run-on is technically called) essentially changes the balance between the sentence and the line, establishing a tension and forward movement that forces the reader not to pause at the end of the line but to move expectantly to the next, the line-break encouraging a semi-pause or, sometimes, no pause at all. Yet, when it comes to the various effects of the line-break we can’t fully itemise these unless we consider also the added aspect of ‘music’ in poetry that serves to emphasise its impact and meaning. In such cases, music reinforces the effect of ‘the break’, the run-on line, in a sense, keeping us off-balance and acting as a kind of regulatory valve as we move through the lines of a piece: such a dramatic idea, that we take for granted today.

An example of this effect can be further heightened by ‘internal rhyme’, which intensifies the ‘swing’ over the musical line to the next line as a musical echo. A similar, if more immediate, effect is to look at what I call ‘swing-rhyme’. Here, the rhyme at the end of one line is immediately followed by a rhyme at the start of the next. This is a stanza from the poem ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ (which translates as ‘Forget-me-not’) by the Second World War poet, Keith Douglas:

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

I love this poem, despite its difficult subject matter. The ‘swing rhyme’ from line 2 to 3, coupled with a general rhyme scheme, serves to amplify the action expressed, exploiting the line-break to dramatic, almost explosive, impact.

For me, one of the most interesting uses of the line-break is how it enacts (or should enact) the meaning of a poem, its rhythms perfectly matching the movement and subject. A great example of this are the hesitant, off-balance, lines of Paula Meehan’s piece ‘Take a breath. Hold it. Let it go.’ The young poet is about to leave the family home but watches as her sister make-pretends a circus act on the boundary wall in the garden. She views it with a sense of foreboding:

She steps out
on the narrow breeze block fence. If I shout,
I’ll startle her. She’ll fall …


She falls anyway. I could not save her.

The movement and sense of the lines here make for an off-kilter feeling. It’s interesting also how the short sentences punctuate the line (rather like Anne Sexton’s use of modulation), giving us the ‘high-wire’ act of her sister, enacting both form and meaning to achieve this by utilising the line and line-break to brilliant effect.

Finally, one of the most powerful effects of the line-break is that it can be used to place ‘heavy’ emphasis on the last word of a given line. A compelling example of this can be found in Derek Mahon’s poem ‘After the Titanic’. Here are a few lines as the liner sinks and the speaker says:

... my poor soul
    Screams out in the starlight, heart
Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.                          

The phrase ‘heart breaks loose’ is a powerful one, but more powerful still by breaking on the word ‘heart’. It intensifies the meaning of that word and, added to this, the absence of a pronoun before ‘heart’ further develops the sentiment: in a way, it is the heart of everyone on that sinking ship that is captured at that moment. Not ‘my’ or ‘your’ heart, but simply ‘heart’. It’s a powerful expression of communality, powerfully expressed in the poem’s extreme context.

The line-break is perhaps the quintessential aspect of poetry, defining it as a distinct form in literature. It allows the poet to manipulate language in a way that no other technique can quite achieve. Being in control of it, is as close as we come in poetry to realising the careful rhythm of a master film editor’s hands, or a great painter’s articulated brushstroke; the line break is as characteristic as both in generating the pace, energy and signature of a given work.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Poetry of Science - essay

This piece first appeared in Poetry Ireland News in summer 2012. I write from a personal perspective here on how I moved from the world of science to the world of poetry, reflecting on what I see as the relationship between science and art and their necessary functions as different approaches to knowledge in contemporary society – an increasingly relevant question, I feel. In any case, I hope you find it interesting.

For more essays  from Poetry Ireland's archive, you can find a full index here. Well worth a visit!


The Poetry of Science

Look into the cup: the tissue of order
Forms under your stare. The living surfaces
Mirror each other, gather everything
Into their crystalline world...

- Thomas Kinsella, 'Phoenix Park'

The first poem that filled me with a genuine excitement was encountered one day in a stuffy classroom in my final year in secondary school. It was Thomas Kinsella’s ‘Mirror in February’. I enjoyed poetry but this poem seemed different and more immediate. It was written by someone not distant from me in time and language, but a poet still writing as I read it – Kinsella then being the only such living poet on the English syllabus.
I faced a dilemma as I approached my Leaving Cert exams. As well as English and History I was also passionate about Maths and Physics. The question was which would I prefer to study at University? In the end, I chose Natural Sciences and found myself in Trinity College, daunted at first by the transition to higher mathematics, chemistry and physics. Thankfully, after the terror of the first term, I settled in and was an eager student, choosing to major in Experimental Physics under the guidance of my supervisor, one Prof Iggy McGovern – known to many of you now as the author of two excellent poetry collections.
At that time neither Iggy nor I talked about poetry, though I had continued to read it as I headed towards my finals, with friends in the English Department recommending poets like Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and other modernists. Whilst I was sometimes baffled by these poets, I enjoyed the challenge such work provided. After graduation, I worked for about a year as a research assistant at the Department, but found I had no stomach for the often repetitive and slow nature of research physics. Despite my passion for the subject I didn’t see a direct future in it, and after a period of crisis decided to revisit that earlier moment of reflected encounter in ‘Mirror in February’ and try my own hand at writing poetry. My progress was reasonably quick and within a few years my first published poem, ‘Apple’, appeared in Poetry Ireland Review 47, edited by Moya Cannon, in autumn 1995. It was a piece about Newton.
I had no concept of myself at that point as a ‘scientist-poet’. It just seemed natural to me that with a background in physics – and a passion for all the sciences – that this world-view would seep its way into what I was writing as subject matter, explored in the unique vocabularies that science also provided me with. For example, in an early poem, ‘Dragonflies’, I describe the dragonflies as ‘they dart from one point to another / plotting the water’s surface / with their ghost geometries’. For me, nature poetry after Darwin had to somehow reflect this altered view of the natural world. I also found in scientific figures rich material for poems, writing pieces about Einstein (‘Einstein’s Compass’) and Galileo (‘The Moons’) as well as Newton. I also became quite fascinated with natural history and a series of poems followed about paleontology, geology, insects, astronomy and even mathematics.
At the same time, I naturally also wrote about more immediate and personal concerns: family, lovers, friendship, loss and grief. The type of material that perhaps we expect to see in a contemporary poetry collection. The difficulty I faced was how to make these different types of subject-matter work in some unified way to form a collection itself. It took me some time to achieve this, but eventually I realised that these subjects- the philosophical and the personal - could exist side by side, the intimate, personal dramas placed against the grand backdrop of geological and even cosmological time, perhaps in the way the gods provided the epic context for the lives of mortals in classical literature. For me, the fleeting moments of lived experience are placed against the vista of what we might call ‘deep’ time.

Inevitably, I faced the question in doing this: what is poetry’s relationship to science? I think we have to be clear here and say that the arts and the sciences serve different, though no less important, functions. Science’s job is to examine disparate phenomena and find a law or theory that shows how they are connected. This hypothesis is then tested and if proven true gives us an ‘objective’ truth. Poetry also tries to find patterns of connections and draw unexpected material together to form a coherent poem, but it can never aspire to the empiricism of science, nor should it. In the end, a poem can only persuade rather than prove. It captures something of the ‘subjective’ experience of living, though by means that make such an experience recognisable or comprehensible to another person. We might borrow an important concept from science and call this a form of ‘resonance’.
And perhaps by writing about science I’m attempting to bring these seemingly abstract and even distant ideas into some kind of imaginative resonance with the nature of our lived lives, so that they too may form part of the fabric of our experience in the process; that such ‘ideas’ may also be felt as the ‘tissue of order’ that Kinsella speaks of in ‘Phoenix Park’ – an order that both disciplines search for, albeit in very different fashions. That is, at least, something of what I hope to achieve in my work.

June 2012


Red of course. The colour
of blood. Shining and smooth,
its form perfected and round.
An emblem of the human

mind, nestled up there
among the leaves innocent
of its fate, swaying
in a green dream about

to waken. Ripe and
waiting for the final
nudge, the soft slap
              of the breeze, to fall

              down to the ground
              with a thud beside
              the place he sits, to
              start again the ancient act

              of the naming of parts.

              from In the Library of Lost Objects (Ward Wood Publishing, 2011)





Saturday, March 3, 2018

My intro to 'All the Barbaric Glass' by David Butler (2017)

I was flattered when David Butler asked me to launch his latest collection All the Barbaric Glass last spring. David really is a marvelous poet and I am also a huge admirer of his debut collection Via Crucis - so much so that I wrote to his publisher to congratulate him for publishing it. David manages in his poetry a delicate mix of verbal dexterity, vivid imagery and heartfelt feeling. I recommend his work highly to you if you've not encountered it yet.

For now, here are my introductory remarks on the collection. It can be purchased directly from his publisher Doire Press, who are doing great work in finding - and publishing - original voices in contemporary Irish poetry - including, of course, David Butler himself.

A Question at the Shoreline: ‘All the Barbaric Glass’ by David Butler

All the Barbaric Glass was launched at the Irish Writers’ Centre, Dublin, on 23rd March 2017.

The opening lines of the first poem, ‘Breaking’, of David Butler’s second collection, All the Barbaric Glass, acts as a statement of intent for the work, one which he steadfastly adheres to throughout:

                        There are times you need
                        to step outside of colloquy;                
                        to mute the looping newsfeed,
                        the tinnitus of the immediate.

This is a collection that consciously steps beyond ‘the newsfeed’, the constant information thrown at us both in daily life and in the online sphere. That world occasional encroaches on this mission in certain stray moments, but David resolutely stays the course to give us something beyond mere reportage or internet chatter.

The striking imagery of the collection reminds us that this work exists at a boundary, most obviously, that of the physical landscape of the shoreline, the place between land and sea. The shoreline is a very real and concrete location throughout the poems, but subtly reaches the level of metaphor also, representing as it does so the space between life and death, loss and love found, the solid ground of the present and the less certain waters of past and future.

This notion of the blurring of boundaries is heightened also by the fact that many poems take place in the gloaming, the dusk-light, that liminal space between day and night, becoming the shadowland of the poets inner, self-questioning thoughts.  The passage of time is marked out through these scenes as when a young child finds a dogfish washed up on the beach and the poet observes:

                                                            ...Small wonder
the child with bucket stands and stares
                        and starts to hear the song of sand;
                        the whisper in the hourglass.

Such philosophical preoccupations are threaded throughout the work but there are also more emotionally direct pieces, most particularly those about his father and late mother, such as ‘Death Watch’, ‘Watcher’, and ‘Family Album’. His father’s descent into Alzheimer’s is not just observed, but observed closely and felt to the core. In the poem ‘Father’, David takes us far beyond cold statistics or even, indeed, the powerful testimony of loved ones seen on a segment on the TV news, to a fully articulated statement that captures the heart-breaking reality of the condition as experienced by both the father suffering it and the son’s efforts to try to understand it:

                        What unsigned city is it you wake in,
                        featureless, or with such altered features
                        the streets are not familiar, or if, with
                        shifting familiarity, like dreamscapes
                        you wake from?

The autumnal/wintry setting that pervades the collection also seems to suggest that the work exists in the wake of such loss and questioning, where we view the shoreline differently again – not just as haunting but as one now ‘haunted’ by personal grief.

It should be obvious by now how beautifully written these poems are. However, this isn’t achieved through a relaxed, easy lyricism but rather a starkly elegant one. There is an exactness and precision to these poems, an angular beauty, we might say, somewhat reminiscent of the that most descriptively rigorous of Irish poets, Thomas Kinsella. Take these lines from ‘Correspondence’:

                                                There are more
                        tongues here than in a metropolis
                        gorse and cowslip and insect
                        all flash their intimate semaphore;
                        a corncrake croaks Morse; while a skylark
                        hoisted high as radio-mast,
                        is twittering its incessant machine-code

It is this sense of rigour which offers a controlled, formal elegance to the language, the observational accuracy perhaps reflecting David’s studies in engineering at university. There is an eye to detail, as ‘Correspondence’ shows, that other writers may well miss.

However, there are also moments of counterpoint placed in the lattice of such a grief-work, where splashes of colour interrupt the wintry shoreline scenes and present their own vivid reality. In ‘Grand Bizarre, Istanbul’

                        Suddenly the senses are ablaze: scent
                        has tumbled into an Aladdin’s cave
                        that illuminates the throve of memory...

while in ‘Mellifont Abbey’, bees

...fumble inside auricular lilies          
drunk on summer’s insistent song.

At the same time, the contemporary world of the ‘looping newsfeed’ and internet babble breaks through on occasion (as it must), impinging on the other reflections of natural setting. Yet found amid this ‘tinnitus’ is more important news, news that matters and captured in the vision of “all the suitcases, empty as grief / that bob on the Aegean...” bringing us closer to the scene, however briefly, of distant calamity.

To end, I just wanted to note something I only fully appreciated on a second reading of All the Barbaric Glass and one that strikes me as important and central to this books appeal. That thing is the presence of the question mark throughout these poems. So often when poets ‘question’ (especially these days) they are questioning others in accusatory tones for their social or political ineptitude, their incompetence, faults and lack. The ‘other’, in this sense, is always an easy target for lazy vitriol.

Here, though, the questions are those asked of oneself, offering a form of self-reflection and self-questioning that, in the end, is a method of self-interrogation that leaves no place to hide for the poet in these poems. This is not, in the end, a collection that offers easy resolution or explicit consolation, though nor is it one lacking in humanity or tentative hope.

The last two poems of the book demonstrate this unerring honesty. In ‘The Injunction’, the poet remembers the Deutsche Grammophon records his father would play on the old record player in the living room when he was a child, and how: “Still it reverberates / like a paternal caveat: /the cough of the stylus defluffed; / the circuitry clearing its throat; / the expectant static...” In the beautifully strange, and slightly chilling, final poem ‘Restless’ two lovers look out onto the sea as they walk the shoreline. She imagines she spies a body bobbing in the surf, just beyond the rocks. They peer out together, more alert now. He questions her assertion, then responds:

                        It’s not, I say again, less sure.
                        Less sure of myself, too
                        and of us,
                        with the sea and wind and world enormous about us.

March 2017