Some poems come from what can only be described as idle observation. This feels like one of those poems. You can imagine the poet sitting there with a pint, noticing a man in the corner. After a while, intrigued, the poet starts scribbling a few lines on a beermat. There’s little planning, just a process of recording thoughts on paper. With later drafts, these thoughts are refined. Of course, you can never make absolute assumptions about how a poem found its way onto the page, so it’s worth checking out Matthew’s answers to the questions at the end of this post.
The first verse has a hint of Heaney, especially in that phrase “elbow-snug”. However, the poem steers clear of Heaney pastiche whilst offering moments worthy of his skill in well-chosen verbs/phrases such as “steeped in age” and “the answer flamed in his glass”.
Of course, at the centre of this poem is the idea that this apparently silent man is preoccupied with words, bringing the pencil to the page in order to complete his crossword. He himself is an abandoned boat, and words, whether on paper or uttered from mouths, keep him connected to the world.
He'd catch my eye every now and again,
across the bar, tucked against the wall,
elbow-snug, hands across themselves
at rest, moving only to scribble on a crossword
when the answer flamed in his glass,
then ritually leave the pencil and grip the pint
to be chased down with a whiskey. You'd see him
day or night, steeped in age, Sunday afternoons
with the air of widower, silhouetted in front of the window
where the old abandoned boats
in the bay pulled and tugged gently
against what kept them from being lost.
I was born in Belfast in 1980. I now live and work in Carrickfergus, County Antrim. I am currently studying for my BA Honours in English Language and Literature. I have published poems in magazines and journals on both sides of the Atlantic, including The Asheville Poetry Review and The Honest Ulsterman. I was one of six new poets showcased in a special reading to mark Poetry Day Ireland, organised by Poetry NI and Poetry Ireland. My work was chosen for the 2016 Community Arts Partnership anthology, Connections, funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (http://comartspartner.org/news/community-arts-partnership-literature-and-verbal-arts-poetry-in-motion-community-connections/). I was long-listed for the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing 2016. I am currently finalising my first collection of poems entitled Door Left Open.
In terms of influences, there are a lot of poets that I admire greatly, but I guess a few of the biggest ones would be the likes of Ted Hughes, R.S. Thomas; the war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and the WWII poet, Keith Douglas; the Americans are also hard to beat, Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, Heather McHugh and John Berryman among my favourites. The Eastern Europeans are another clutch of geniuses, Joseph Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz, Anna Akhmatova and Miroslav Holub, just four that I love. In terms of contemporary poets, so to speak, Paul Durcan, Michael Longley, Don Paterson, Harry Smart and Ian Duhig are five I greatly admire. I'm lucky enough to know the latter two personally, and nicer, funnier men you will not meet. There are so many other Irish poets I could name, but it would take all day to list them. Here in Belfast I very much respect the work of younger poets currently on the scene, across the academic divide, of which Stephen Sexton and Colin Dardis are just two names that spring to mind amidst a cityscape that includes the likes of Geraldine O'Kane, Jan Carson, Lynda Tavakoli and Stephanie Conn, all of which constitute but a drop in a rich poetic ocean. Seamus Heaney, though, is a touchstone for me; to paraphrase the singer Seasick Steve in his song 'The Dark': He was there at the beginning, he'll be there at the end. I also have to pay tribute to my father, Adrian Rice, without whom I would not be writing poetry. I may be biased, but what a great poet. I read his books like a fan.
Although it could be said that every writer writes from observation, this feels very specifically like a poem of observation, where the speaker is observing someone/something from a distance. It could also be thought of as a poem of speculation. What roles do you think observation and speculation have in writing poetry?
You are right in your assumption, it is indeed a poem of observation; and with that comes speculation, I guess, especially if you do not know the background to the person or thing that you are observing. In poetry I think observation and speculation are of utmost importance. As a writer it is part of your job to observe and speculate. A biographer might have less scope to employ the latter, but as poets we are not bound by convention. Look at Paul Muldoon's wonderful poem, 'Why Brownlee Left'; that is a perfect example of observation and speculation. The poem originated from a photo of two horses standing in a field that was half ploughed, unattended, their owner nowhere to be seen, and as Muldoon himself states, he tried to construct a narrative for what may have happened to the man, the 'Brownlee' of the title. The observation quickly turns to speculation as the horses end up 'gazing into the future.' A beautiful and mysterious image, and one that underlines the importance of the two ideas in poetry. In a sense 'Lost' is bookended by the two, if you like.
I like the idea of “the air of a widower”, and the fact that you don’t elaborate on it in the poem, but could you elaborate on it here now? What do you actually see and smell when you sense the air of a widower?
The man in the poem is an elderly man who is drinking by himself in his local pub. I suppose his wife could be at home, but I just felt that the sense of him spending hours in his local on a Sunday as an elderly man gave him the 'air of widower'; I had the sense of him using the pub as a distraction for grief, an old grief, ok, but nonetheless a grief he carried with him. I suppose as the author of the poem I imagined myself as an elderly widower and transposed how I thought I might deal with the death of a long-term companion into the poem – speculation again! The musty, dry alcohol smell of a man no longer freshened and buoyed by a woman's touch at home, and lesser for it, perhaps even a little lost... Or it could be he has entirely different reasons for his melancholic routine, but it just seemed to pour out of him, that image.
Men and silence. I could leave the question at that. But I won’t. The subject of the poem seems like the silent type, and you’ve obviously deemed him worthy of interest in writing the poem. What do you think attracts people/artists to the idea of the silent man?
I love silence, I must say. When I train in my local gym I am always happier when the place is almost empty and the music is not playing. I can withdraw into myself and my subconscious, I can reach a higher level of focus, or I can get lost in a poetic image and find that I come out of the gym with a poem. I gravitate to quiet places, where only natural sounds add to the tranquillity. That's not to say I don't enjoy listening to music and chatting etc, but I do feel very strongly that silence has a very important part to play in keeping the creative mind and soul in balance. So with that being said, I think the artist is attracted to the idea of the silent man, or woman, because they represent a kind of peace that is required in order to create art. An artist IS a silent man, or woman, when they are absorbed in their work, so I guess the image of that just offers up contemplative material.
Can you tell us about how you came to write this poem? Did you come across the man many times, then suddenly realise one day that you’d write about him? Or did you know the first time you met him? And how long was the idea gestating before you began writing the poem?
I first saw the man across the bar when I was about fifteen years old in a pub on the Islandmagee Peninsula in North East Antrim, where I grew up. The pub no longer stands. I would see him over the next few years periodically as I snuck in to watch the football on Sundays or Saturday afternoons. There he would be, in the same spot, with the pint and the whiskey and the paper, doing the crossword. Sometimes he'd do crosswords on old newspapers that had been left behind by other punters. I never actually met him, I never knew his name. It seemed only the bar staff knew his name. I just noticed him from across the bar each time I went up to order. He had the classic old-man-at-the-bar-in-a-Spielberg-film look. So the idea for the poem seeded itself in my teenage mind and gestated for 19 years or so before it got written. But the poem could be as much about myself as the man at the centre of it.
Why do you write?
Paul Muldoon was asked the same question once and replied, 'It's how I make sense of the world, to myself.' That would be hard to disagree with. The world is such a complex place that sometimes a complex method is required to simplify it, in a soulful manner at least. It does my soul good to read and write. That's not to imply that I think poetry is therapy, but it certainly can be therapeutic. I recently showed a prose piece I wrote to the poet Harry Smart, and when he had finished reading it he said, 'This one just lets loose the despair, which is fair enough, one of poetry's jobs.' I agree.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
I would tend to side with Colin Dardis when he advised: 'Read.' I would wholeheartedly agree, however I would add: 'Read the right stuff.' If you immerse yourself in reading great work, it lessens your chances of writing bad work yourself. As well as that, I would advise anyone looking to become a writer to develop a strong backbone and always persevere, no matter how many knockbacks you may take. Endure the rough with the smooth, and hopefully the work you produce will in turn endure.
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