Harry Clifton

Harry Clifton was born in 1952 in Dublin, and educated at University College Dublin. After graduating he began an extended period of life outside Ireland, lecturing at a Teacher Training College in West Africa in the 1970s and working as an aid administrator in Indochina in the 1980s.


After spells in Italy, England and Germany, he settled with his wife, the Irish novelist Deirdre Madden, for ten years in Paris, a decade recorded in Secular Eden: Paris Notebooks 1994-2004 (Wake Forest University Press, 2008). Since 2004 he has lived in Ireland.


He has published twelve books of poetry, the most recent of which are Portobello Sonnets (2017), Herod’s Dispensations (2019) and Gone Self Storm (2023), all published by Bloodaxe Books in Britain and Ireland, and by Wake Forest University Press in the USA. 


He has held many teaching positions at universities including Bremen in Germany and Bordeaux in France, as well as University College Dublin and Trinity College in Ireland. He served as the fifth Ireland Professor of Poetry in 2010–2013, and is a member of Aosdána.

Q: In her poem, ‘Questions of Travel’, Elizabeth Bishop queried, “What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life / in our bodies, we are determined to rush / to see the sun the other way around?”, and then asked again: “Oh, must we dream our dreams / and have them, too?” I wonder how you would answer those questions. And was Elizabeth Bishop ever an influence, for you? The qualities of wry insight, observational attentiveness, and formal dexterity that characterise her work can also be seen, I think, in your own.


A: I began reading Elizabeth Bishop, who was not then on any course that I remember, in the early 1970s, and was impressed by the qualities everyone now recognises. But the challenges of closed form and intellectual matter were more exciting to me at the time. The things of mine that hearken back to Bishop would be early Dublin poems like ‘Aston Quay’ or a little later ‘Plague and Hospice’ from a time spent in Africa. She is to be praised for the fantastic eye, of course, but also warned against for the bricklaying tendency – the poem as slow accumulation of details, e.g. ‘Over 2000 illustrations and a Complete Concordance’ – without the flash of lightning that brings it all into wholeness.


Personally I have never been a ‘traveller’ of the Bishop kind, although I have lived in various elsewheres for extended periods, and for different reasons, some of them delusional. But one elsewhere I have never dwelt in is South America, my place of maternal ancestry, as “seeing the sun the other way around” is unwise without first resolving certain things in your head, as Gone Self Storm, my new collection of poems, tries to do.


Q: In a recent article for the Dublin Review of Books, critic Joe Cleary noted that “the writer as entrepreneurial professional – self-starting, agent-acquiring, prize-winning, striving and thriving in a competitive literary marketplace – has become the de facto celebrated contemporary model” in Ireland, with literati now leaning “towards modes of professional self-making more corporate than republican, more savvy than civic.” Do you agree with this assessment? And if so, how do you feel about the literary trend Cleary identifies? 


A: Obviously one cannot but agree with Joe Cleary in the broad sense, but has it ever been any different? Medici and Maecenas have always been around, in one form or another – aristocratic patronage, the state/arts council, academe, the philanthropy (often vain) of the rich, etc. – and on the other hand the poet-courtiers “more savvy than civic”, jostling for preferment, ingratiating themselves to a greater or lesser extent. It is an unpleasant reality, but the best way of dealing with it is to face it squarely, and to write, not out of some illusion of being separate from and purer than others, but from the truer standpoint of the compromised self.


Q: In your lectures as Ireland Chair of Poetry, you cast a cold eye on what you called the “too-beautiful poem bought at too little a price to oneself, and indirectly, too high a price to others”, specifically in the context of what you called the “subsidised dreamspace” of lyric poetry in Ireland. Your own poems operate at a high technical level and are often lyrical, but they also remain open to everything that seems “unharvested” and even “unimaginable” in life (I’m quoting from your poem, ‘The Just’): they encompass some of the multitudinousness of an actually existing world within their own form. Is that a difficult balance to strike? My impression is that you prefer the grit and tang of the true to the sheen and polish of the beautiful.


A: To carry this question of purity and compromise a little further, I have always been fascinated by the figure of the lyric poet Horace, delicately balanced between the money of Maecenas and the power/brutality of Augustus, both in different ways his benefactors, the guarantors of his liberal space in Tivoli, his “power-protected inwardness” as a critic like Lukács would have called it. We too live and work in that “subsidised dreamspace” with the ugly realities sanitised out. I have a poem of my own somewhere called ‘The Liberal Cage’, which ends: “… not in doubt / contentment, or in pure mind / but in anger alone, will we find / the key that lets us out”. 


And the lecture you mention suggests that ‘anger’ in the form of a Literary Suicide Note, as the only possible cathartic act. Patrick Kavanagh’s wild outburst in Kavanagh’s Weekly (1952), Michael Hartnett’s David-versus-Goliath return to Irish in 1984, Osip Mandelstam’s “unfair” blast at the critic Gornfeld in ‘Fourth Prose’ (1929), Boris Pasternak’s “awful” novel Doctor Zhivago in which he breaks away from his unbearable establishment status. The aftermath of these and other such ‘suicidal’ acts is/was of course the bringing down of the house on the head of the perpetrator, but also a strange escape into the loneliness of a true inner freedom, as the later work of all four of the above attests.


Q: I wonder whether you think of yourself as Irish – or anything else, for that matter? You’ve written of the “greenness, the greyness, / The eternal everydayness / Of Ireland”, as well as producing a book of Portobello Sonnets, centred in the area of Dublin where you live. But you’ve also travelled widely (including to Nigeria, and Thailand, and around Europe), and your poems, perhaps as a result, remain cognizant of the “unreported zone / That poetry or journalism, open / Only to themselves, have never shown.”


A: All this depends on two things –  relation to language and relation to place. Where the first is concerned, I consider myself a poet of the English language, who happens to have been born in Ireland. As to the second, I was brought up in one of the early housing estates on the southern outskirts of Dublin, towards the Dublin mountains – somewhere I regarded then and now as a non-place, though that is not a criticism, more a description of what was and is for half a million Dubliners these days a kind of gypsy encampment between generations where children are reared before the structure collapses and the caravans move on (cf. my poem ‘Redesdale Estate, 1956’ in Herod’s Dispensations). Growing up in a non-place has the advantage of allowing one to put down roots – in love and experience – anywhere and everywhere (your question refers to a few of mine).


I have every respect for tradition and place, if one happens to have grown up in and through such states – my own paternal ancestry was actively nationalistic back into the Fenian era – but as a poet language not place is my home, and I increasingly feel that new or ageless values are created, disclosed, discovered and rediscovered through the poetic action of language itself. The rest is responsible citizenship.


Q: Your collection, Gone Self Storm, has just been published by Bloodaxe Books. In it, life-spanning, elegiac poems rest alongside sprightly investigations of places half-real and half-imagined. For all their fixity on the page, the poems are filled with “the roar / Of pure becoming”, riffling through “The knick-knacks and the paperbacks, / The indestructible open house / Of dead and living, frozen time”. A number of long-standing themes and trajectories in your work to date (concerning time’s passage, and the strange blend of permanence and ungraspability that defines the lives and places we pass through) seem to culminate in this collection. Do you agree? Do you feel at home in (your) poetry?


A: One of the abiding themes – for me at any rate – of the poems collected in Gone Self Storm is the search for a true maternal ground, something which most people take for granted but which I, for various family reasons, felt the lack of. Of the three sections in the book, the first is concerned therefore with a maternal ground in South America that was there before I was born and that I came out of, and the third with a maternal ground in Northern Ireland that I married into. The “domain of the mothers” as Auden calls it, or in my case grandmothers as well, is at the heart of most of what is here, and secondarily, as you pick out in the poem ‘A House Called Stormy Weather’, the search for a point of rest, in or out of this life and the times and places that blow through it. So we come home again to language, and one’s own most personal experience, as the only places where, in Holderlin’s phrase, “poetically, man dwells”, as distinct from merely building his house.                      

Harry Clifton // April 2023