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A Different Furrow

Billy Mills

How Far From Daybreak, ed Nicholas Johnson, Etruscan Books, £15, ISBN: 978-1901538885

There is a widespread narrative of twentieth century Irish poetry that hinges on how the writers who followed Yeats dealt with life in his shadow. In this story, Austin Clarke (to take one example) struggled with both the influence of, and neglect by, the older poet; Patrick Kavanagh (to take another) reacted against Yeats’s aristocratic idealisation of peasant life to forge a poetry of the authentically local. This narrative is, in effect, the normative framework in which critical discussion of modern Irish poetry has taken place for most of the last one hundred years.

While this framework has been useful for students of Irish poetry, it has tended to exclude poetry written from what may be perceived as the margins, such as poetry by women. In the case of someone like Brian Coffey, who set out writing poetry as if Yeats had never existed, it has resulted in an almost total exclusion of his work from both anthologies and general surveys of the terrain. In recent years, there has been some attempt at redressing this neglect, with the publication in 2000 of Donal Moriarty’s fine The Art of Brian Coffey and, a decade later, Other Edens, a collection of essays edited by Benjamin Keatinge and Aengus Woods.

Given this general neglect, most casual readers of verse who encounter such stray bits of Coffey’s work as are generally available are left without much context in which to place it. Specifically, a full picture of his career as a poet can be difficult to piece together. Coffey first started publishing in the late 1920s in The Irish Student magazine under the pseudonym Cœuvre (or Couevre), a name that reflects his immersion in French writing at college, which included an involvement with his brother Donough  and friend Denis Devlin in student productions of Molière. These early poems are redolent of French Symbolism, but also reflect Coffey’s reading of Eliot and, to a lesser extent, Pound:

In this waste place assessing loss
here will I lay me down a while
considering the promise of the final mile
making a final violent recollection
making a final absolute election ...

A number of these student poems were collected in the 1930 volume Poems, together with pieces by Devlin. Devlin’s poems also reflect their French interests, as do uncollected poems by another college friend, Niall Montgomery, although Devlin was less drawn to the Symbolist tradition and more to the rationalism of a Racine or Montaigne. Equally, he did not share Coffey’s enthusiasm for Pound and Eliot.

Coffey and Devlin were both committed Catholics, but their religion was of an intellectual, cosmopolitan variety, out of sympathy with the pietistic Catholicism of the emergent Irish Free State, and it is hardly surprising that they both ended up leaving; Devlin for a career in the diplomatic service and Coffey to study in Paris and, ultimately, to teach Thomism in the USA. The two, together with Tom MacGreevy, spent a good deal of time together in the French capital in the early 1930s, discussing poetry and becoming acquainted with Joyce and Beckett. However, their practice diverged fairly rapidly, with Devlin quickly finding his own voice in a style that was nearer to Auden than the Modernists while Coffey continued to experiment in the Eliot/Pound modes in a series of poems published in Three Poems (1933) and in a number of little magazines including Eliot’s Criterion.

Coffey and Beckett established a lifelong relationship based, as much as anything else, on a shared reticence, with much of the former’s later work inhabiting a Beckettian landscape transformed by the presence of a personal deity and the redeeming qualities of sexual love. In later years Coffey took up printmaking and his visual works include a number of images based on Beckett plays, dark works that represent what might be thought of as existential stage-sets of the mind.

Via another member of the Irish literary community in Paris, George Reavey, Coffey got to know a number of Surrealist poets, most significantly Paul Éluard, who was to be the first in a long sequence of French poets translated by the Irish poet. Characteristically, Coffey was interested in Éluard as a love poet while having no interest in his politics (he was to write decades later that “The political use of words kills the capacity to use words to make poems.”) In an essay on Coffey and Reavey in Other Edens, Sandra O’Connell teases out the implications of meeting Éluard on Coffey’s poetry. In essence, reading and translating the Frenchman led Coffey away from the Eliotic ironies of his early 1930s work towards a more idiosyncratic, personal voice. Although not in any sense Surrealism, Third Person, his 1938 “breakthrough” collection, applies lessons in the disruption of syntax and of readerly expectation that he learned from the French poet to produce a kind of metaphysical love poetry like nothing ever written before (and rarely since) by an Irish poet:

She is no stone no lilac
no bird more beautiful than stars
takes what she takes by right of grace
to make hearts equal
unequal were strange

With these poems, Coffey found his own voice, a music he inhabited rather than borrowed. And then, for twelve years he published nothing. Newly married and starting a family, the war meant abandoning Paris for a job teaching in England while his wife took shelter in Dublin. Eventually, the Coffeys landed up in St Louis, Missouri, where Brian taught philosophy of science and started publishing essays and reviews in The Modern Schoolman while the family grew and grew. There simply wasn’t time for verse.

In 1952, Coffey resigned on a matter of principle and more or less simultaneously resumed poetry, writing the long poem “Missouri Sequence”, not in the style he had achieved in Third Person, but as a kind of reversion to more standard syntax and a direct tone of personal expression. The poem is, among other things, an act of reconciliation with Ireland, with even a nod to Yeats, as Coffey seemed to contemplate a return to his native country. It is one of Coffey’s more popular works, partly because it is ‘easier’ than anything else in his mature oeuvre, but ultimately something of a dead end. Coffey was clearly writing himself back into verse, but the mode he adopted was not to be one he persisted with.

“Missouri Sequence” was first published in the University Review (later the Irish University Review) in 1961. The review had already printed the later “Nine-A Musing” earlier that same year, an out-of-sequence order that has been replicated whenever the poems have been reprinted, unfortunately obscuring the transitional nature of the Missouri poem. ‘Nine’ sees Coffey return to his exploration of sexual love, a theme that was to remain central to his work for the rest of the decade.

The University Review published two more long poem sequences over the following few years, most significantly “Mindful of You”, which together with “How Far from Daybreak”, from the 1971 Selected Poems, forms the core achievement of what might be called mid-period Coffey. These poems extend both the technical experimentation of Third Person and its exploration of love. Coffey rejects any Idealist interpretation of love; the beloved female is not object but subject, what Aengus Woods (writing in Other Edens) calls “an absolute other”, whose arrival releases the poet from Beckettian isolation to a world filled:

with green light
a presence yours entering the emptied soul
like water fingers stretching on sand
like wind filling a silent tree

This is philosophical poetry, but its philosophy is grounded in the particular. Coffey takes the Thomist maxim Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius in sensu as, in a sense, a prefiguring of William Carlos Williams’s “no ideas but in things” or Pound’s “[d]irect treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective”. Coffey the philosopher and Coffey the poet finally find a common ground.

The 1971 volume, published by Michael Smith and Trevor Joyce’s New Writers Press, was a first opportunity to establish Coffey’s reputation. For the publishers it was part of a more general effort at reconnecting their own “avant garde” poetry with an indigenous tradition including MacGreevy, Devlin, Beckett and Montgomery, all of whom they published either in book form or in their journal The Lace Curtain. For those of us fortunate enough to come across a copy, the NWP Selected was an eye-opener, a realisation that Irish poetry could be more formally and intellectually adventurous than we had previously suspected. However, Coffey’s work had less immediate appeal than the Northern poets who were coming to dominate the landscape at that time and its impact was minimal.

The 1975 Coffey Special Issue of the (renamed) Irish University Review was a second such opportunity. Edited by JCC Mays, Coffey’s most perspicacious critic, the issue featured a selection of Coffey’s translations from the French, “Leo”, a satire in prose and verse and the major long poem “Advent”, which has been the main focus of much of that critical attention Coffey has received.

“Advent” represents a change in focus for Coffey on a number of levels. Technically, the influence of Mallarmé, whose work he had been translating for a number of years, is evident in the writing. With this technical shift came a shift in focus. The exploration of sexual love that marks much of the earlier works is absent from “Advent”, which focuses on questions of faith in a world in which bad things happen. One of the occasions of the poem was the death of the poet’s son, although it also explores other instances of the notion that “Wisdom is won through woe”. In each of the first seven sections of the poem, Coffey inspects and rejects “false Advent idols”, from nature worship to politics. In the final section the most insidious of these “false” idols, intellectual pride, gives way momentarily to simple piety and acceptance, with the whole poem resolving on the phrase “so be it”.

For many of Coffey’s readers, and for the poet himself, I suspect, this was not a satisfactory position and his admirers have regularly struggled with that final section. In the wake of “Advent”, he returned to his investigation of love in two sequences, “The Gaugeless State” and “For What For Whom Unwanted”, both of which reflect the sense of loss that suffuses that poem. Then, in “Death of Hektor” (1979) and the unfinished “The Prayers”, Coffey returned to the twin themes of the son fallen and the relationship between intellect and belief in ways that, because they remain open-ended, are ultimately more achieved as poetry than “Advent”.

From the time he returned to poetry in the 1950s, Coffey continued to publish short lyrics, many of which are very fine, but it is the long poems that form the core of his work. His unapologetically complex engagement with love, loss, syntax and an idiosyncratic verbal music are quite unlike anything else in Irish poetry, different in kind not only from more “mainstream” writers, but also from Devlin, Beckett and others with whom he is frequently associated.

Towards the end of his life, Dedalus Press published another selected, Poems and Versions, a third opportunity for readers to get a wider view of Coffey’s achievements. Unfortunately, and with no blame accruing to the publisher, the book was poorly edited (by the poet himself) and has long been out of print.

This year, a British small press, Etruscan Books, has provided a fourth such opportunity. Earlier this year they brought out an improved text of “Advent” in a handsome, large format edition and now they have followed this up with a new selected poems, How Far From Daybreak, both edited by Nicholas Johnson, who runs Etruscan. He has worked hard to correct the texts of the poems he includes and provides a comprehensive overview of Coffey’s work in a handsome and sturdy paperback volume. In some respects, reviewing any selection from a poet you admire will be like reviewing an anthology; you’re glad it has been published, but if you had edited it yourself you would have made different decisions. Chief among these has to do with the ordering of the poems.

Johnson has chosen to open with “Third Person”, followed by a selection of long poems from the (Irish) University Review, incorrectly including the title poem among this group, with two sections from “Advent” (the same publisher brought out a new full edition of the poem earlier this year), “Death of Hektor”, “The Prayers” and other more-or-less long poems following in order of date. The second section of the book consists of a selection of Coffey’s shorter lyrics, also in chronological order.

This arrangement has the unfortunate consequence of potentially leaving the reader with the impression that Coffey’s mature voice was the one with which he started. It also has the effect of making “Missouri Sequence” seem more of an inexplicable aberration than it actually is. The error is compounded by the fact that the arrangement is apparent only from the table of contents, with no clear signposting in the body of the text. More than most poets, Coffey’s work cries out to be read in the order in which it was written; unfortunately, Johnson’s editorial approach does not facilitate this.

Nevertheless, this is a useful introduction to Coffey’s work and should serve as an opportunity for poets and readers to evaluate his place in twentieth century Irish verse. One question to be asked centres on the complex matter of Coffey’s influence (if any) on younger writers. The complexity resides, in part at least, in the fact that his particular style of verbal music is almost inimitable. Clearly, Smith and Joyce published Coffey because they considered him to be some kind of forefather, but neither of them wrote anything that could be described as Coffeyesque in any sense. Of those younger writers they published, only Geoffrey Squires seems to have learned much technically from the older poet. Indeed, of all the Irish poets who came into their own in the 1960s, only Eoghan Ó Tuairisc could be said to inhabit a similar poetic space, and that appears to owe more to similarities in background and temperament than to any direct influence.

Of the later “experimental” poets associated with Joyce’s SoundEye festivals in Cork, only one, David Lloyd, could be seen as displaying the influence of Coffey’s style in some aspects of his writing, and that only in one book, the 1987 Coupures. For many, Coffey’s religious leanings coupled with his idiosyncratic style seem to mean that he is a poet more to be admired than emulated. For younger non-mainstream Irish poets, Coffey’s disavowal of the place of politics in verse is a further barrier to their assimilating his lessons.

So, then, what is Coffey’s place in what one might loosely call the Irish avant garde tradition? Setting aside for a moment his claims on our attention as a poet, pure and simple, I believe it to be an exemplary one, in the sense that he showed younger poets that it was possible to build a body of work that stood outside the localist position that runs through, to take the most prominent landmarks, Kavanagh and Heaney, a poetry that retains a distinctive Irish flavour while fully engaging with the Modernist “revolution of the word”. It was this feeling of previously unsensed possibility that first drew me to Coffey’s work four decades ago and I believe I am not entirely alone in that.

In his introduction to the 1974 Coffey issue of the IUR, Mays wrote that “[a]nyone who admires Brian Coffey’s poetry is a member of a minority and must be aware of that fact.” Forty years later, little has changed. Despite my reservations about its organisation, How Far From Daybreak, together with the recent Etruscan Advent, brings a substantial body of Coffey’s work back into the public domain. It can only be hoped that these books will help expand that minority, if only a little, and that Coffey’s rigorous, contrary and deeply serious example will move a few more readers, and poets, to share his restless exploration of what it is poetry can be. To quote some characteristically self-deprecating lines from the title poem:

All the goods of earth and being
waiting outside      Oh come
come out into such scant-lit grey
as we who will not suffer walls
swiftly make freedom in
There is not much to gain
There is nothing to lose

1/10/2015

Billy Mills is a poet, editor, and critic. He was born in Dublin in 1954. He spent some years in Spain and the UK and currently lives in Limerick. He is co-editor (with Catherine Walsh) of hardPressed Poetry. His Lares/Manes: Collected Poems was published by Shearsman in 2009, and Imaginary Gardens and Loop Walks by hardPressed poetry in 2012 and 2013 respectively. His other writings on Coffey can be found in Other Edens and on his Elliptical Movements blog. 

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