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Life is a Dream : 40 Years Reading Poems by Paul Durcan (Harvill Secker, 2009)

Our March Poetry Library Book Club took place on St. Patrick's Day, so it had to be an Irish poet, and a regular attendee requested the work of Paul Durcan.

Irish poet Paul Durcan was born in Dublin in 1944, he will be 70 on 16th October this year (2014), and coincidentally he shares his birthday with Oscar Wilde. His parents were from County Mayo and he is related on his mother's side to the Irish nationalist John MacBride, who was executed for his participation in the 1916 Easter Rising. His father, John, was a barrister and circuit court judge. A period of illness in adolescence may have fuelled his bookish tendencies although he believes that his liking for literature was already established before that. Durcan began studying law and economics at University College Dublin.  While at college, Durcan was kidnapped by his family and committed against his will to Saint John of God psychiatric hospital in Dublin, and later to a Harley Street clinic where he was subjected to electric shock treatment and heavy dosages of barbiturates and Mandrax. Of his time in mental health institutions, Durcan has said: "There are two shadows on my soul that stayed forever - melancholia and depression stayed with me for rest of my life. The second is a kind of insomnia. I attribute both of them to the heavy physical bombardment and the things I saw there, some of which I wasn't able to cope with."

He abandoned his studies in 1964 to live in London where he worked at the North Thames Gas Board. After his return to Ireland he was befriended by the poet Patrick Kavanagh and produced a first volume of poetry, Endsville (1967) with his friend Brian Lynch. After Kavanagh's death in 1967, Durcan lived in London and Spain for a time with his future wife Nessa O'Neill. They moved back to Ireland in the 1970s and Durcan completed a degree in Archaeology and Medieval History at University College Cork and the couple had two daughters, Sarah and Siabhra. After winning the Patrick Kavanagh Award for Poetry in 1974, he embarked on a career in poetry. His first solo collection, O Westport in the Light of Asia Minor, was published in 1975.

Durcan has produced over twenty books, mainly collections of poetry, and is a member of Aosdána - a group of Irish poets, artists and musicians who have made outstanding contributions to the Arts. His writing has a distinctive voice that encompasses whimsy and satire, humour and melancholy, and is frequently lively and colloquial in its depictions of people glimpsed through the poet's personal lens. He is acutely sensitive to the poetics of place - first and foremost that of his Ireland, but also of other landscapes and cultures that he has visited as a traveller. Durcan tends to favour free verse over older, more traditional, poetic forms. His interest in the visual arts is also evident in his poetry: Crazy About Women (1990), a series of poems inspired by pictures and sculptures from the National Gallery of Ireland, represents, for Durcan, "a convergence of the two preoccupations of my life" - poetry and painting. A follow-up collection, Give Me Your Hand (1994), was inspired by art at the National Gallery, London.

The Berlin Wall Café (Poetry Book Society Choice, winter 1985) first gained Durcan a wide audience in Britain. It has been regarded as his most important work, and is characteristic of the poet in its moving meditation on intensely personal experiences from his own life (much of it dealing with the break-up of his marriage). Similarly, Daddy, Daddy (1990), winner of the Whitbread Award for Poetry, explores his relationship to his recently deceased father. In 2009 Life is a Dream : 40 Years Reading Poems, 1967-2007 was published bringing together Durcan?s selection from 40 years of poems.  In 2012 he published a new collection Praise in Which I Live and Work and Have My Being. Paul Durcan is famed for his live readings and has given readings at Southbank Centre.

(Some of this biography is taken from Chadwyck-Healey Literature Collections available to search in the Poetry Libary.)

Critical response
Durcan has been ranked with Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon as one of Ireland's most influential contemporary poets. He is well known as a political and cultural commentator on modern Ireland, a country he both celebrates and satirises, and for his charismatic performances as a public reader of his poetry.

Poet Derek Mahon has said of him "He picks up on every little nuance of national life. I believe he takes the madness of public life personally. He is aware of the grotesque comedy of modern Ireland and reflects this in his tabloid narratives." Irish Times 10 November 1990

In a review of Life is a Dream in Poetry Ireland Review 100, 2010, Justin Quinn said "His poems are quite often about a man who is also called Paul Durcan, and they recount what would seem to be autobiographical anecdotes, and imaginative tangents to these. When a life's work is about one person, or persona, the results can be claustrophobic, but Durcan's self contains multitudes, and is striking for the way that the life of Ireland in the last four decades breathes through his lines.  As the historian Diarmuid Ferriter remarked, Durcan 'humanises history', and 'his collected poems are a valuable record of social history'.  This is Durcan's greatest achievement."
However, in the same review Quinn says "Certainly it would be difficult to write a cultural history of Ireland during the last few decades without reference to Durcan, but his poetry, as collected here in Life is a Dream and present as an oeuvre, is uncompelling, and seems unlikely to find a permanent place in the canon".

Durcan has been dismissed by some critics as a showman who's poems don't work on the page but Harry Clifton, in a profile of Irish poets, has said: "Durcan has been subject to the same recriminations as the good Beats have, by those who read with the eye rather than the ear. The eye notes only the absence of regular stanzas and assumes chaos. Not so, however. Durcan's breathing line, far longer than iambic pentameter, is written for the ear (which does not mean it cannot be read off of a page) and is the key to his inclusiveness."
"Available Air : Irish Contemporary Poetry, 1975-1985", Krino, No. 7, 1989.

Please see this extract on You Tube of Paul Durcan talking to Colm Tóibín about writing for reading:
Watch from 23.11 to 26.03

We started by looking at two poems by Durcan about religion/the Catholic church.

1. Sister Agnes Writes to Her Beloved Mother

From the collection Sam's Cross, 1978.
Durcan can be heard reading this poem on Paul Durcan reading a selection of his work [cassette]
Irish Audio Arts, 1988

1. Have you ever seen a knitted egg cosy?
2. What do you think Sister Agne's beloved mother's reaction will be to this letter?
3. Could this poem by true?
4. What are Novenas?

2. The Sign of Peace

From the collection Daddy Daddy, 1990.

1. Looking at the opening of the poem, why would a middle-aged woman not attend mass?
2. What do you make of the line "I felt a spurt of something in my side"? Does is just suggest sexual desire or recall the death of Jesus on the cross?
3. Do you like the description of the man's eyes?

Questions relating to both poems:
4. Are these poems just funny poems or do they have something serious to say about the Catholic Church?
5. Do you like the voices of these poems?
6. Are you surprised a male poet is writing with women's voices? Do you find the voices convincing?

3. The Kilfernora Tea Boy

From Teresa's Bar (1976)

Durcan can be heard reading this poem on Paul Durcan reading a selection of his work [cassette]
Irish Audio Arts, 1988

1. The tea boy tells us he's happy making tea. Do you believe him?
2. Oh but it's the small bit of furze between two towns / is what makes the Kilfenora teaboy really run What does the refrain tell us or suggest to us about the teaboy?
3. What does the accent in the fourth verse ("turf-perfumèd") bring to the poem?
4. The line following the "turf-perfumèd" line has the phrase "fling a fiver in my face". What does this change in register (from "high" to "low" language) bring to the poem?
5. His wife is described by the teaboy as "a gentle soul" despite the beatings she administers. Where does this leave us as readers?

4. The Man Who Thought He Was Miss Havisham

From The Berlin Wall Café (1985)

1. "life returns to normal abnormal" - is "normal abnormal" an acceptable state of play in the world of this poem?
2. "But when I discovered that my husband / thought of himself as Miss Havisham, / well, old son, I could not wear it at all!" - is there some gender discombobulation happening in this narrator's voice?
3. The epigraph for the collection The Berlin Wall Café (in which this poem appears) is from The Talmud, a central text of Judaism. It reads: "The world is a wedding". What world does this wedding describe?
4. Is this a poem or a story?

5. The Most Extraordinary Innovation

From the collection Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being (2012)

1. Does he like being nursed?
2. Have you ever been nursed in a hospital? Can you relate to this experience?
3. Why bring Virgil and Dante into the poem?
4. This poem was published before the current crisis in the NHS. Was Durcan just celebrating nurses or do you think he had another motive in describing nursing as "the most extraordinary innovation of all"? (Comment on our mechanised society?)
5. Do you agree with him?

Concluding questions
1. Those of you who have heard Durcan read live, how does reading his poems on the page compare?
2. Do you think, contrary to reviewer Justin Quinn, that Durcan's poetry will find a permanent place in the Irish canon when he's no longer around to perform it?

We finished by watching Durcan read his poem "Raymond of the Rooftops"
Watch from 21.03 to 23.11

and then listened to a song Durcan recorded with Van Morrison "In the Days Before Rock 'n' Roll":

Please search the Poetry Library Catalogue under All Authors to find books and recordings by Paul Durcan for reference and loan:

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