The Temptations of Silence

Being Cork Poet Laureate has been a privilege and very much a learning process. When I first took up the position in 2021 I set myself the rule that the poems had to be as accessible as possible. In addition there was the requirement (from the job spec) that each poem had to be linked in some way to things that were important to the city and county. That didn’t necessarily mean that they had to be about hurling, say, or the City Development Plan, but each poem had to be local even if it was (or aspired to be) universal. 

Of course, it turned out to be a year in which very little happened. My constant question each month was: ‘What am I going to write about now!’ We spent a good deal of it in lockdown and there were few or no games, concerts, readings, plays, or evenings out of one kind or another and very little visiting friends. Even politics went quiet as everyone struggled to cope with the virus. So many of the things that normally inspire me simply stopped happening. George Steiner wrote that ‘poetry is tempted by silence’ and I had to resist that temptation so often during the past ten months. And yet, a day would come each month when a thought, an image, a line, a voice, a subject would come to tempt me instead. Somehow each month something saved me from silence.

Throughout my tenure I treasured the synergy between Pat Cotter, Director of the Munster Literature Centre, Patricia Looney at the City Library, Des O’Driscoll at the Irish Examiner and myself. Each month an email dropped into their inboxes containing the month’s poem and each month I had their response. Then the poems were exhibited on boards in the libraries, accompanied by wonderful images; they appeared on the Munster Literature Centre website; and finally in the Irish Examiner on the first Wednesday of each month and again there were responses from each of those publications. Usually, when I write a poem it sits on my hard drive for years before anyone sees it; the almost instant connection with readers has been one of the most valuable aspects of the whole year for me. Many readers have written to me or told me personally of their favourites (inevitably the first poem is high on the list because of the connection to Rory Gallagher). One of the great joys of the process has been the fact that many of these emails, letters, messages and comments have come from people who do not normally buy poetry collections and would not normally read poems.

This brings me to another aspect of the process. Normally it takes me a year or more to finish a poem. I begin with a line or an image and take it as far as I can. When I was younger I would continue to hammer at it to try to put it in shape, but I have learned that poems have their own calendar, they take their time to reveal themselves. I got into the habit of working on as many as ten poems at the same time, taking my time and waiting for the right words. The result was, I hope, an increased unity of theme and style across each collection, but between each of my first three collections there was a seven year gap reflecting the length of time it took me to finish the poems. My most recent collection – Smugglers In the Underground Hug Trade is an exception to that rule because it is a diary of the pandemic year of 2020 and was completed in that year. And again this chapbook is perforce an exception because, as the laureate, I was required to write and publish a poem each month. It was, for me, a strange and unsettling process characterised by intense nervous anticipation of the next subject followed by an obsessive focus on just one or two poems, only one of which would make it as the poem of that month. It was unlike anything I had ever done in my many years of writing.

The Poems

Some readers may be puzzled by the fact that I don’t use punctuation in my poems. Let me try to explain. I have always strived to reduce my poems to the barest simplicity and also, in the process, to allow for ambiguity and uncertainty so that each reader can read the poem in her or his own way. This reductiveness also frees me to employ a sort of collage of registers and voices, interruptions in the flow so to speak, and to make ironic comments on my own writing. Many years ago I decided to dispense with punctuation in an attempt to force this reduction on myself, to force myself to simplify each line and, at the same time, to allow space between lines for ambiguity, irony and that collage effect. Originally my plan was to reinsert the punctuation afterwards but I liked the effect and so it has stayed. Of course, most writers can justify their stylistic choices in some way, but deep down I have to admit that there is something in me that enjoys making things difficult – for myself as much as for readers. That too, I’m sure, lies behind the absence of punctuation.

However, in the case of the laureate poems, I have tried hard for a clarity and directness, with less of the ironic self-commentary that my work in general holds, and I hope most of the poems are self-explanatory. Perhaps the elegy for the poet Thomas Kinsella which accompanies the elegy for Cara O’Sullivan (the second last poem of my tenure, January 2022) is an exception. Kinsella himself was not the most accessible of poets but his work has had a profound influence on me – beginning with my first encounter with him for my Leaving Cert and continuing throughout my life. He died on December 22nd 2021 and I thought it necessary to mark his passing: even though he was a Dub through and through, he was and is also part of the heritage of every Irish person. The elegy contains several references to his work – ‘another December’ refers to his poem ‘Another September’; ‘fair Ellinor’ comes from ‘Phoenix Park’ and is a reference to his wife Eleanor who predeceased him; the general imagery of the sea, lighthouses and darkness echoes the atmosphere of his pamphlet One, a favourite of mine, in particular, the poem ‘Finistère’ and so on. But I hope that the poem can also be read, without knowing any of these links, as a simple expression of loss. I think the elegy for Cara O’Sullivan will be immediately accessible to every Cork person.

The first poem, ‘Hometown Blues’, came to me while waiting for my first vaccination at Cork City Hall and most of it was already in my head by the time I got home. All it required was polishing up. I think most people will recognise the references to lines from Rory Gallagher songs. The ‘whirligig of time’ is one of my favourite quotations from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – ‘and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges’. A ‘whirligig’ is what we would call a spinning top, and during the last two pandemic years I have often felt like someone clinging to a spinning top trying desperately to hold on.

When the fishing families of the coast mounted their protest, I went down to the docks to see them and to speak to the crews and supporters. Their quota problems are ongoing and made worse by Brexit. In the old days, when a fishing boat had come to the end of its days it was burned, hence the title ‘Burning the Boats’, though, of course, it has other meanings too such as ‘there’s no going back, we’ve burned the boats.’ Much of the language here comes from the terminology of fishing – the landing winch, the trawl warp (rope), the deepwater edge (of the Porcupine Bank), cables, banks and deeps and roadsteads (a sheltered anchorage). I have always loved the sea and the people of the sea. The men of my mother’s family were all sailors – navy and merchant navy – for many generations.

Our coastline, it’s geology and marine life and the ocean itself have fascinated me since I first began to find out about it as a child in the village of Whitegate in East Cork. I’ve always loved swimming and ‘In Geological Time’, begun at Galley Cove near Crookhaven, combines my love of the sea, memories of my childhood and my fears about environmental catastrophe. Seen in ‘geological time’, the poem suggests, our human foothold on this planet is no more than ‘a broken shore’ on the edge of oblivion.

When two young men from the Skibbereen Rowing Club won gold in the Olympics I had my poem for August – ‘Strike the Grey Sea and Fly’. Originally it had a different title, then my grandchildren  Ruán and Odhran asked me to read it for them and afterwards, Odhran told me: ‘The title should be ‘Strike The Grey Sea And Fly’, Grandad.’ And so it is – without the ‘Grandad’ part. One cannot refuse a six-year old.

‘The Arcades Project’ is about outdoor dining, something that has transformed the inner city, especially at night. Despite the fact that we don’t have the weather we’re determined to be the Riviera by the Lee. Most people know that the rivers that ran through the ancient city still exist in channels underneath. This is how the city floods from the sea, a high tide and a strong southeasterly wind driving the salt water up through the old channels and exiting through the shores and sewers as well as overtopping the banks. In a way the flood stands for my fear that the pandemic had at least one more hard kick to give us. The title comes from a book by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who while living in Paris, became obsessed with the cities arcades and collected a mass of material about them, all of which is published in his book The Arcades Project. He came to a tragic end, fleeing the Nazis (he was Jewish and communist), finally committing suicide when he believed there was no hope of escape.

Extraordinarily fine autumn weather led to ‘A Pet Day In October’. Anyone who has walked the Lee Fields will recognise the description including the reference to the extremely busy pop-up coffee shop across the Straight Road. I also prepared a poem called ‘The Silent Sky’ for that month and I have included it towards the end of this chapbook together with a small number of poems which I originally considered but rejected for various reasons. For example, ’The Silent Sky’ is about the closure of Cork Airport which was ongoing at the time, but because we were in the midst of yet another wave of COVID, I rejected it in favour of the more positive ‘A Pet Day’. I think these ‘rejected’ poems belong with the others and might be of interest to readers.

Like most people who take the prospect of climate change seriously, I consider the result of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow a miserable failure. The problem, as always, is that governments are wedded to capitalism and capitalism is addicted to growth. Unfortunately, to achieve this growth we are eating the planet. We can’t have a safe healthy planet and capitalism. Scientists estimate that the decisions taken at COP26 will lead to a global temperature increase of 2.5% – a catastrophic warming which gives the poem its title.

‘Solstice’ was written just as the Omicron wave of the pandemic was rising. We are fortunate that it turned out not to be as bad as previous waves. The last two lines suggest hope but also desperation – better days are coming, but unfortunately, at that point, ‘not soon enough’.

‘The Work Of Mourning’ is the final poem in my ten months as Poet Laureate of Cork. In it I try to come to terms with the meaning of the pandemic for us personally, the feeling of life in suspense, the sense of personal loss, the experience of empathy and solidarity, and, of course, the deaths of so many – as I write the death-count is  million people worldwide – more than the population of the Republic of Ireland. The title comes from a beautiful collection of memorial essays by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and some of the imagery is suggested by that book – for example, the idea that friendship already archives loss, or that all our lives imply death. I try also to capture the sense of time simultaneously compressing and expanding that, it seems to me, is characteristic of how we experienced this pandemic – the feeling that nothing happened and too much happened for two years.

Looking back over the poems now I detect a certain ominous, brooding quality – even in a happy poem like ‘A Pet Day’ I end with the uncertainty of ‘small changes in a strange world/we wear our sleeves short/and keep our distance long’. I feel this was inevitable, despite my determination, from the outset, to be positive where possible. We have lived through a pandemic comparable to the Spanish ‘Flu outbreak of 1918-1920 (though, thanks to science and a more caring politics, with far fewer deaths – that pandemic killed as many as a hundred million people) or the great plagues of history and we are surrounded by evidence of a planetary decline caused by our exploitation of fossil fuels. I hope the next Cork Poet Laureate, if there is to be one, will be able to write more positively about our stewardship of the planet and find more hopeful subject matter in the day-to-day life of our city and county.

Finally I would like to thank the citizens of Cork City and County for the privilege of being their poet laureate – the first in what I hope will be a long line.

William Wall, Cork, February 2022

Hometown Blues – The Laureate Poems will be published on Wednesday April 20th 2022 by Southword Editions. The launch will take place at the Central Library, Cork City at 19.00 on that date. All welcome. The chapbook is a free publicatioon sponsored by Cork City Council, The Munster Literature Centre and Cork City Libraries.